April 14, 2021

How Three Simple Words Will Transform Wayfinding in Cities and Spaces


Veronica Reynolds is the sustainable travel advisor for Milton Park which is a one square kilometre office and industrial park with 7,500 employees and over 250 organizations near London. She’s been very successful at getting people to look at other options besides motor vehicles for commuting, and has installed new walking paths and connecting cycling bridges around highway infrastructure. I previously wrote about her implementation of the first autonomous public transit shuttles in Great Britain to service the park.

Veronica asked me if I knew “what3words”.  I did not.

What3words is a geolocation technology that looks at the world made up of squares of three meters by three meters. That makes a whole lot of squares, and each square is given an address with three words. The addresses are translated into 43 different languages, and yes the addresses are not the translations of the same words.

Vancouver’s City Hall’s three word geolocation is putty.averages.closets.

The Cambie at Broadway transit station is starch.tinted.update.

And Milton Park in Great Britain is scores.honey.ambition. Milton Park management  is  now asking all the businesses to locate their buildings and pick their own what3words to be used for wayfinding.

You can find your own what3words address for your home or workplace here.

The what3words “language” generally works with 25,000 words, although there are 40,000 in English that cover the whole globe including the oceans. Words are chosen on ease of spelling and pronunciation, and there’s no confusing or derogatory terms.

What3words make their money from B2B sales from car companies wanting bespoke inbuilt navigation systems.  They are now being used by DHL and other logistics companies and by emergency services.

Even if the three word combination is entered into the geolocator and is not spelled correctly, the locator will still correct the spelling to hone in on the location.

The short video below visually describes how the geolocation works using what3words.




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  1. Hard no to What3Words. While clever, their aim is to keep the technology proprietary and that makes it a non-starter for public way finding. Only apps and websites that pay w3w can use it, unlike lat/long which anyone can use. W3w’s terms of service are so restrictive that it has no (legal) use in an offline mode, making it dangerous to rely on (gps works without internet connectivity).

    Policy issues aside, the system doesn’t scale up or down very well, I believe they resolve to a 3mx3m spot, so getting more detailed is impossible and for larger destinations you’ll need to pick the 3 metre spot that best represents it (not an uncommon problem in geolocation schemas). The reliance on language works well in some cases but not where two languages share a lot of words like Norwegian and Danish, so local application starts to run into uniqueness problems at large scale. Not great if you want to make your proprietary pay to play method a global standard.

    Personally the worst thing about it is the marketing. My firm works with a lot of cultural orgs and What3Words likes to write them asking to get a w3w marker on the website. They do this by taking screenshots of peer organizations in the same areas and doctoring screenshots to misrepresent w3w usage. It’s lying, it’s gross. And really, it’s useless. Rather than clicking a link that resolves to lat/long in any browser or mapping app, people are supposed to write the words into a single service and find out where they want to go on a… map. So it’s the long way around to wayfinding.

    Like I say, it’s a clever system. It has its uses, but they are fewer than they seem and neither the technology nor the business withstand scrutiny. It’s important to be wary of private companies that offer to help replace open, free standards with something that looks sexy but is filled with traps that rob the commonwealth.

    Editor’s Note: What3Words make their money from B2B sales eg from car companies wanting bespoke inbuilt navigation systems. Industries in Great Britain have had positive experiences with them and have engaged with their UK CEO. It’s worth reading their wiki entry https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/What3words
    It talks about some of the criticisms around cultural neutrality and their recent court case .

    They are now being used by DHL in Great Britain and other logistics companies and emergency services.

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