Can what3words fix my streetlights?

Read time 5min 10sec
James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.
James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

What’s in a location? Not just an address, but a specific spot on the globe? How useful is it if I can pinpoint that spot with relative ease?

Ever since the Russians shot down a Korean airliner in the Eighties, the answer to that question has come from GPS and its peers. The Nineties saw this concept explode into the consumer space. Then the early 2000s used it to commoditise digital maps and later smartphones would make geolocation as commonplace as napkins. Today, people try to beat the records of unknown competitors in Strava or risk running into roads while hunting Pokémon.

So you’d think we have this location thing sorted. But there are still problems. If I wanted to finger a location today, it would require using some kind of online map and copying GPS coordinates or sharing a link that conveys those coordinates. Both are cumbersome – you can’t conveniently share a location link with an emergency service or courier company, especially if you are in a rush or panic. There is still a gap between geolocation technologies and the user experience.

There are also practical problems, as I recently discovered. I live on a road where the street lights constantly stop working. Johannesburg’s current administration under mayor Herman Mashaba is doing a great job addressing the city’s crumbling infrastructure, and I do my part and report the lights.

But recently, City Power’s Mobi self-service portal changed its embedded map provider. As a result of this new map, my area now falls outside the border of City Power’s jurisdiction. In the real world it doesn’t, but the map thinks it does and thus stops me from reporting the faulty streetlight.

One change to the geolocation part of a municipal service and I can’t use the tool. Geolocation might be easy to do today, but it can also easily break a service. It also has other drawbacks. Sometimes the locations on Google Maps are wrong. Don’t get me started on Apple Maps, which has gotten me lost more often than I care to admit. These services work, yet they aren’t as convenient or reliable as they could be.

But what if I could give the position of that streetlight using three words? This is the premise behind what3words, a service that split the globe into 3x3 metre squares and named each using three unrelated words assigned by an algorithm. Using the app or Web site, I can find the spot where that light sits and just give its three words to the reporting authority.

What3words essentially gives an easier way to designate a location. Apart from my streetlight, it could be used to pinpoint addressless spots in a township or on a farm. It could direct emergency services – ER24 and the AA already use the service. Platter’s Wine List uses what3words to give the locations of wine states for tourists.

It’s a brilliant idea being fed through a narrow tube that could limit its adoption into a widespread location language.

What3words sounds great and I hope it gets adopted more widely. It certainly makes a lot of sense. The service has drawn critique, most of which I don’t think is warranted. Some argue that we already have location sharing on our devices, but those have their own complications and, specifically, don’t contribute to a geolocation lexicon that the average person can intuitively use. Others take task with the fact that you can’t sequentially work out locations through the word structures, but we already have geolocation systems that allow for that. What3words is for us location-illiterate unwashed masses.

A more valid critique is the proprietary nature of what3words. This is a product controlled entirely by one company. If you wish to use the system as an organisation, it will likely cost you. Though what3words says it wants to create a standard, it doesn’t seem to be pursuing any form of consortium, the traditional vehicle for spreading standard adoption. Right now, what3words looks like a pretty good idea that survives because it can be monetised.

Many inventions that changed the world started life as a product or with a profit motive. The question is whether the usefulness of what3words overshadows the inconvenience of its cost, which is why the company is pushing hard to get many individuals using the service for free. Then maybe those who can pay for the service will be coerced into joining as well.

It’s a brilliant idea being fed through a narrow tube that could limit its adoption into a widespread location language. Nothing stops City Power’s crews to just download the app and use what3words locations. But once there is a policy directing it, then the city will likely have to pay for the service. This sits at the root of what3words’ more hardcore detractors: can we entrust a possibly revolutionary geolocation standard to a Silicon Valley business model?

I don’t know. I also have my doubts. But I do like what what3words does and I hope it will become more commonplace. Once at a music festival, a friend and his young son joined us. His father’s precaution: write a cellphone number boldly on the kid’s arm in permanent marker so he can wander the festival. It worked brilliantly. Now, imagine your kid memorising three words that will always take them home.

What3words has real potential. I just hope it doesn’t outprice itself away from wider support.

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