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Where you headed?

I’ve been a techie most of my life. If it is technical, I usually love it. Computers, GPS, calculators, radios, you name it. My first calculator cost me about $30 in 1973 and could add, subtract, multiple, divide, and do squares and square roots. I was in heaven. My first GPS was a Garmin 12. No mapping, just coordinates and waypoints. I’d transfer the waypoints to a map to record my location. All good fun, but in today’s world, way too much work. Over the years I’ve upgraded my tech toys to the most capable I could afford. Re; that word “afford“; now that I have the ability, my purchasing philosophy is “Buy once, cry once”. I purchase the best item available, even if it is really expensive, cry once over the cost, and then luxuriate in the knowledge that I have acquired the best, highest quality, toy out there. Alas, however, Moore’s Law can be extrapolated to learn that tech toys will always improve, so I continue to purchase new toys. On the upside, my hand-me-downs usually go to family and friends that appreciate them, even if they are no longer SOTA. No one has complained about receiving one of my tech toys.

Being a wanderer, I’ve been particularly fascinated by anything related to navigation. This includes transits, compasses, GPS, maps, protractors, smart phones, satellite images, Google Earth, navigation software, coordinate systems, etc.. This last one, coordinate systems, is what I’m currently jonesing about. I’ve had iPhones since the iPhone 5. During that time I must have installed 1000’s of apps. Most are later deleted due to lack of needed functionality, boredom (mine), glitchy behavior, or something better came along. Keeping to the techie navigation theme of this post, I stumbled on one app, Compass – Professional. It had been installed for a few months before I noticed an odd line of text near the top of the screen; (*)w3w=blisters.napped.sprint. On a hunch, I touched the text string and was magically transported to a web page that explained everything. I was hooked.

Most of you are probably familiar with latitude and longitude. It is a geographic coordinate system that can precisely locate any point on a globe, namely Earth. It’s been around, in some form, since the 3rd century BCE. It is used by the Global Positioning System (GPS) to quickly identify locations anywhere on the earth. Its uses are limited by our imagination and as long as a tool, such as a computer, GPS receiver, or smart phone are used, everything is relatively easy. The complexity is hidden from the user. A problem occurs though when you to tell a person that your location is (27°59′ 17″ N, 86° 55′ 29″ E) and you need help pronto. You’ll die. Your rescuers will not get there in time to save you, even if they knew exactly where you were. w3w won’t help you in the aforementioned situation either, but in more mundane circumstances, it just might. The problem, you see, is that most people are lousy at remembering numbers, but they excel at remembering words. We communicate with other people all the time using words so they are a medium we know well. Most of us don’t talk numbers all the time (well, maybe some programmers do, but most normal people don’t). That is where w3w, aka “what3words” comes in.

The good people at What3Words have devised a system where each 3-meter square section of the earth is assigned a random 3 word identifier (watch the TED Talk for a brief explanation and examples of how it is being used). They created the what3words app (this link is for Apple, but there is an Android version) that implements their vision. You may be wondering “how does this help me?”, Glad you asked. Here’s an example:

  • You are meeting a friend at the Mall in Washington during a huge protest/gathering. The Mall is very crowded and you arrive first. Rather than expecting them to look around for you, you send them the following text: ///owners.paper.cove. They enter that text into the what3words app on their smart phone and it navigates them to your location within a 3 meter square area, a bit west of the Washington Monument. They walk to that area, find you, give you a hug and say “let’s protest/gather”. NOTE: That particular location can be precisely located using latitude and longitude, but then both of you would have to deal with numbers. 3 words seems like an easier way.
what3words screen

An interesting factoid… the world can be divided into around 57 trillion 3-meter squares. what3words uses 40,000 dictionary words to form the 3 word combinations. 40,000 cubed is 64 trillion… more than enough to uniquely name each 3-meter square.

I do have one concern though, what3words must record the unique 3 word name for 57 trillion 3-meter squares. What happens if the connection between a location and the 3 word name becomes corrupted or lost? Having once been a programmer/project manager/systems analyst, I’m sure they have dealt with that issue. If not, we always have latitude and longitude.

(*) These are not exactly the words I saw when I noticed them. If you followed me far enough to read this note, see if you can find the location.

Thanks for reading.

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