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Lost in the backwoods? How just three words could save your life

Friday, January 15th 2021, 4:15 pm - You'd think we live in a world where getting around is easy, but finding specific locations can prove to be more difficult than that. Enter: what3words – an app that provides just three words to communicate exact location and that could have life-saving implications.

Ever order a package only to find the person who delivered it put it in the wrong spot? What about trying to get to that Airbnb you booked, but just plugging in the address isn’t quite enough to get you there? And how about trying to find a friend at a music festival held in an open field with no real landmarks to use as visual cues?

That last one is exactly what happened to Chris Sheldrick, who knew there must be a simpler way of communicating exact locations.

“What people don't often know is that musicians get lost a lot,” said Sheldrick, whose background includes expensive experience in the music business. “Every day you're trying to find somewhere new and I was trying to get people to find an entrance to a field for a festival or, let's say, gate L42, when you are loading the equipment into Wembley stadium or something, and the address was never accurate enough or pointed to the right place.”

He tried simply passing on longitude and latitude-based GPS coordinates, but found that was too niche and complicated for most people.

“Basically I sat down with a friend and I was like how do we simplify GPS coordinates into something really simple that anybody from a child to a grandparent could feel at ease using?” he says.

That’s what led to the development of what3words - a global addressing system based on what Sheldrick says is the simplest way to talk about location.

What3words screenshot canmore alberta The what3words app divides the world into three-by-three-metre squares, each given a name that is a combination of three common words.

The system divides the world into three-metre squares – 57 trillion of them, give or take, and each named using a combination of common words found in any dictionary.

“So something like 'table, chair, spoon' is the name of one square, and you can move three metres to the side and it might be called 'coffee, banana, syrup,' and so on and so on around the entire world,” Sheldrick says.

All you need to do is download the app, and from there you can navigate a grid, input an address or pick a square and it will tell you the correlating three words to that location point. You need data or WiFi to download the app initially, but once it's on your phone, you’ll have complete access to the trillions of three-word location names.

What3words is offered in more than 40 languages and stretches across the globe, giving locations for places that don’t have addresses and would otherwise prove to be impossible to find.

Sheldrick says that’s proven useful for search-and-rescue missions in a few cases, including in February of 2020, when a group of hikers thought to climb Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the U.K., without proper preparations.

“[They] sort of had gone up wearing trainers or sneakers and were sort of unprepared for the weather, and then suddenly the … call comes into emergency services for people that are going ‘look we're kind of stuck in an absolute blizzard’ and they've been using what3words for that,” said Sheldrick.

what3words screenshot search and rescue The app has proven useful for search-and-rescue operations in wilderness areas. Image: what3words

That’s made it especially attractive for emergency personnel who have begun using the app in Canada. As of December 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police has adopted the what3words app and began using it as part of their rescue services. Most recently, the OPP used it to locate two missing hikers in the northern Bruce Peninsula near Lion’s Head.

OPP Const. Rick Sadler says it’s not hard to get lost or distressed in rural settings, and the OPP deal with countless calls from people in such straits, but 911 services’ cell signal triangulation can sometimes be inaccurate in those cases, lengthening the search by hours.

“We would have to use sometimes marine services, our emergency response teams, canine was often utilized, and sometimes even our OPP helicopter, our air support, to try and locate someone in distress, as you can imagine lost in the woods,” Sadler says. “The ability to have somebody stop, tell us the three words that's on the screen and have that triangulate the latitude and longitude, will save hours and of course, in [an] emergency situation, when you save hours, you save lives.”

Beyond rescue missions and personal navigation, the app’s uses are many, extending to humanitarian aid, e-commerce and logistics, GPS tracking and others.

“One of our biggest integrations has been [in] Mercedes cars. It's now installed in each of their satellite navigation systems so that you can just speak the three words, you can ‘say navigate me to table, chest, boot’ and the car will take you to that three-metre square,” Sheldrick says.

Delivery companies are using the app to dispatch goods to precise locations, including specific entrances and doors. Royal Mail has adopted the app to better deliver parcels to people - even using drones in some cases to deliver items to people living on islands.

what3words screenshot twillingate newfoundland Image credit: what3words

“I think it's funny if you think about it, how addresses we've been using for centuries and addresses, and postcodes, more recently, but really this is kind of like legacy tech that's still here knocking around in 2020 and 2021. It feels to me like there should be something like what3words that people use that's universal and really accurate,” says Sheldrick.

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