what3words API Takes New Navigation Tack

Stuart Iler
Dec. 16 2013, 02:59AM EST

Chris Sheldrick, CEO of the London-based company what3words, has taken a novel approach to the task of navigation with a new API. Sheldrick’s idea stems from the logistical difficulties he encountered while working internationally in the music business. During that period in his career, Sheldrick was faced with coordinating the rendezvous of dozens of people in remote locations. Despite his best efforts at communication, people would still find themselves calling one another on the day of a meeting, seeking clarification on the location of the meeting place.

But in January, an idea struck him: What if specific locations could be represented using strings of words, in a way that was both easy to remember and simple to communicate? After talking with a friend, the idea for what3words was born: Take the entire surface of the Earth, including the oceans, and break it into 3-meter squares. Every square is assigned a three-word code. A spot in the middle of Manhattan’s Central Park? Check out scout.linen.notion. The airport runway on Easter Island, one of the most isolated areas in the world? lumberjacks.sincerity.bartered.

Shorter words are reserved for areas with higher population densities, where word combinations are more likely to be used. Longer words are assigned to remote locations, such as those in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The foundation of what3words is the what3words API, a collection of methods accessible using a unique key. (Signup is free, and there is no limit on usage.)

“Methods 1 and 2 are the main part of our API--they allow for back-and-forth conversion between word combinations and GPS coordinates, and form a backbone that can be integrated into any application that has a location component,” said Sheldrick. “The remaining methods deal with user accounts, information related to OneWords (single-word aliases that can be purchased for specific locations), and email sharing of words and coordinates.”

The what3words methods are:

  • Convert OneWord/three words to position
  • Convert position to three words
  • Authenticate user
  • Oneword availability
  • Register user
  • Update user details
  • Update OneWord
  • Get user statement history
  • Share OneWord/three words
  • Reset password
  • Get OneWord privacy
  • According to the what3words website, requests to the what3words API are made using simple POST requests. All responses are in JSON format.

    Business applications

    So, what can businesses do with what3words? Sheldrick said companies can use the what3words API to design person-to-person communication for locating residential or commercial buildings, in a way that avoids the ambiguity sometimes associated with postal addresses. Shipping companies can also make use of the API to better pinpoint locations and avoid lost time and money, particularly in international contexts.

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    The what3words API does not attempt to replicate existing mapping functionality. For example, Google’s Directions API will return a route between a specified origin and destination, but the origin and destination must be provided as addresses and/or GPS coordinates. As such, the what3words API provides the necessary pre- or post-processing for this type of technology.

    In this way, Sheldrick envisions the what3words API being used by any application that involves geographic locations, with the API designed to make integration with existing applications a low-cost proposition.

    “Over time, the what3words website will continue to provide background about our approach and what we do, but our goal is that the core functionality--word combinations and their associated locations--will become a standard in its own right,” said Sheldrick. “In fact, it’s possible that in the future, we’ll see familiar mapping applications with a new option: Type in three words instead of an address.”

    Reinventing the wheel?

    Some might argue that GPS coordinates already solve the problem that what3words is looking to overcome. After all, if you need to give someone a specific location, why not give him latitude and longitude?

    Sheldrick would answer that question with a question: Which is easier and more intuitive to read over the phone? scout.linen.notion? or 40.772841, –73.973914? And consider accuracy: In the case of longitude and latitude, an altered decimal could result in an error of several feet or up to several miles. To avoid this issue with the what3words approach, Sheldrick said, very similar word combinations that could be confused during conversation are purposely far away from one another in terms of their respective locations. “knife.fork.spoon is very different than knife.fork.spoons,” he said. Indeed, the former indicates a location near London and the latter is in Russia.

    While what3words applications currently rely on Internet access, Sheldrick said there is potential for what3words to be used in an offline capacity in the future. He noted that although what3word’s collection of combined words and locations, if assembled into a single file, would be 27,000 Tbytes, versions of the what3words app could be constructed to focus on a subset of the world, such as a single country. In that way, users could download smaller apps of perhaps a few megabytes, and use word combinations in their area without the need for reliable Internet access.

Stuart Iler Stuart Iler has broad educational and professional experience across a number of disciplines, including information technology, energy, environment, and economics. He currently works as a policy analyst in Washington, DC. Follow me on Google+

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