By Kate Proctor
Back a few years ago when smart phones were a new thing, people would semi-jokingly say, “there’s an app for that”, seemingly about anything you could imagine. I don’t know how many thousands of apps are available to help you organize all areas of your life, have fun, do your shopping, control the temperature of your house, cut your grass … well, maybe not cut your grass, but there really does seem to be an app for almost everything.
I will never be accused of being on the cutting edge of technology, and recently a friend told me about an app that I’d never heard of, in fact I had to get him to spell it out. “what3words” is an app that is touted as “the simplest way to talk about location” (https://what3words.com). It may sound a bit confusing and it takes a bit to get your head around the concept but once you get it figured out it has many uses, and could even save your life.
Because street addresses do not always take you where you need to go, and not everywhere in the world has street addresses (think the back pasture), some clever young men —Chris Sheldrick, Mohan Ganesalingam, and Jack Waley-Cohen — decided there had to be a better way. Chris, who grew up on a farm, was working in the music business and was frustrated by the number of times equipment and people ended up at the wrong place, once even getting a message that they sound-checked at the wrong wedding. Together, they eventually divided the entire world into three meter squares and assigned each square three words. Each square has GPS coordinates that are converted into three words, which can be used to pinpoint the exact place in a more human-friendly way than dictating long strings of numbers.
Today their app is used by millions of people to find, share, and describe places anywhere in the world. Using the app can bring you to within a 3 meter square distance of what or who you are trying to find. The main selling feature of what3words is that it allows you to communicate a location with other people. Whether you need help in an emergency situation, are trying to meet up with other people, or even want to mark a ground hog hole in the field so you can come back and deal with it later, the app is a quick and easy way to help you do that.
For example, I want to meet my friends for a bike ride. I know where I want to meet but have to communicate that information to them. I look on the map in the what3words app and touch the spot where I want to meet. The three words that come up are hoof.teach.knockoffs. I tell them those words, they search them in the app, and can see the location. They can then touch “navigate”, which will help them arrive at exactly the right place.
what3words is a free app and available in over 48 languages. It works offline so it can be used where connectivity is sketchy like trails and fields. Automobile manufacturers, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Mitsubishi, are starting to use it in onboard navigational software as a more accurate way to get people where they want to go.
This app was developed in 2013 and has become popular around the world, especially in the UK and Europe, where it first began. Businesses have started using the app to help customers and suppliers find them. The app won the Royal Institute of Navigation’s Duke of Edinburgh’s Navigation Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement in 2019.
In the UK, the emergency services including police, fire and rescue, ambulance and the Coastguard, have been using what3words to make sure responders are directed to the exact location where help is needed. Canadian emergency services have also started using the app. An extensive list is available on the company website (https://what3words.com/news/emergency/three-words-to-tell-canadian-emergency-services-exactly-where-you-are/), but you can also ask when calling if they know of it. Currently the Ontario Provincial Police are using it, as well as many local detachments, including London, Waterloo, Guelph, and Owen Sound.
Farmers are also finding lots of ways to use the app. An article appearing in Farming Secrets.com (https://www.farmingsecrets.com/how-a-new-global-addressing-system-can-help-australian-farmers-to-operate-safely-and-more-efficiently/) details how Australian farmers are using the app to increase operational efficiency, save key farm locations, and report crime and emergencies. I know that I flag problem areas in a field when working it – either with an actual flag in the ground (if I have one handy) or using the technology I have on board. But communicating that information, or remembering where it is later, is always a challenge.
Recreationally, it can also come in very handy. Out on the trail, it can be used to mark down trees, damage needing repair, or even places you want to come back to. How many times have you been in a crowd and get separated from your friends or family? This tool provides a great way to reconnect. I remember lots of lost time driving around towns looking for soccer fields that had one name posted but a different name communicated. Even a small town can have lots of different soccer fields.
As with all new technology, nothing is perfect and some criticism has been raised about words that sound the same but are spelled differently. So it isn’t completely foolproof. But I’m sure it is an improvement over the old “drive about 200 feet past the big rock and then you can’t miss it” method. I doubt it will ever be used to share the favorite fishing hole, though. That one will remain a secret even the what3words app won’t find. ◊