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A free app converts navigation points into simple three word codes


You may not know it, but the piece of real estate you’re sitting in has a unique three-word code, developed for a free app called ‘what3words’.


The what3words concept is simply brilliant, but it must have been a mammoth task to set it up. The entire globe, including the oceans, has been grid-mapped into 57 trillion squares.

All those squares have English names and English is the universal search and rescue language, meaning that an ocean location is easy to find by emergency authorities. The land-mass squares are named in 26 languages, as well as in English.

The what3words system uses a proprietary algorithm in combination with a limited database, meaning that the core technology is contained within a file around 10MB in size.

As the system relies on a fixed algorithm, not a large database of every location on earth, it works on devices with limited storage and no internet connection. The encoding is permanently fixed and unchangeable.

That code can be input into a navigation device or mobile phone, allowing easy location, without the driver’s need for a detailed address and access instructions.

Because the what3words grid of the entire world is made up of three-metre by three-metre squares, each with its own combination of three words, it’s possible to define any point
to a nine-square-metre plot.

Finally, some vehicle makers are installing the app in their vehicle’s navigation systems, so we’ll see wider use of this brilliant system.


We all know the difficulty of finding some addresses: the site may be huge, with several driveways and a driver can waste time trying different approaches.

It’s also difficult to input altitude and longitude co-ordinates into a navigation system, without making a mistake.

We’ve had to send co-ordinates to air rescue series on two occasions and both times, the instructions we sent were wrongly transcribed and near-disasters narrowly averted.


Our photo shows a campsite location and its three-word code, spout.chips.glitzeist in the trackless waste of the Tanami Desert, to which anyone could navigate.

So, instead of complicated addresses or longitude and latitude ‘fixes’, each destination is identified by its three-word code. The driver inputs that code into the search bar of the what3words app and the navigation system shows and tells where to go.

Alternatively, a street address can be input, if the code
isn’t known.

Either search results in a map display that can be inspected for best access and the red cursor moved over that particular grid square. The relevant three-word code is highlighted and when the go-to arrow is pressed the route instructions are displayed.

Because the exact access point is now the ‘address’ not just a general area that may encompass hectares, the driver is led to the ideal, nine-square-metre entry point.

We tested the what3words app around Melbourne and Sydney in 2018 and loved it. We checked it out in the bush in 2021 and found that unlike inputting co-ordinates, it was easy to be accurate.






























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