What3words: ‘Life-saving app’ divides opinion

A woman rescued from near Everest’s base camp after a fall, a business traveller caught up in a terrorist attack in Somalia and a diving accident in the Maldives. Three successful rescues which relied on three simple words.

What3words divides the world into three-metre squares and gives each one a unique three-word address in order for people to be easily found in emergencies, and to give the billions of people without a formal address access to one for the first time.

But the start-up is also dividing opinion, and among the stories of rescues there are people questioning whether a mapping system which public services are increasingly relying on, should be in the hands of a technology firm.

The London-based start-up was set up by Chris Sheldrick in 2013, following frustration at how difficult it was to get people meeting at the correct location.

The firm has gone from strength to strength, with 60 UK emergency services now using it.

This week it announced new partnerships with car-makers in India and China, and with a firm offering emergency services on behalf of travel insurers.

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The app is useful in remote locations

Few would doubt its usefulness in emergency situations – if people do not know exactly where they are, they can use the app to provide first responders with their exact three-word location.

But in a blogpost written earlier this year, technology expert Terence Eden questioned the business model.

Mr Eden, who has been involved in campaigning for international open-tech standards for the last decade, is concerned that the firm has a closed system.

“The algorithm used to generate the words is proprietary. You are not allowed to see it. You cannot find out your location without asking what3words for permission.

“If you want permission, you have to agree to some pretty long terms and conditions – and understand their privacy policy. Oh, and an API agreement. And then make sure you don’t infringe their patents.”

He also questions the cultural merits of using words rather than the numbers generated by map co-ordinates.

“Numbers are (mostly) culturally neutral. Words are not. Is mile.crazy.shade a respectful name for a war memorial? How about tribes.hurt.stumpy for a temple?”

In response, what3words founder Chris Sheldrick told the BBC: ‘We believe that the best way for what3words to gain widespread global adoption is by operating as a business.

“Being proprietary alone doesn’t ensure success, but it offers a vehicle to provide substantial upfront promotion of a new standard. Operating as a business has allowed us to sustain our work with large-scale global partners, support them through the integration stages, and help them produce and distribute materials to market what3words to their extensive consumer bases.”

And it has fans among the UK emergency services. Just this week, Inspector Mark Proctor from the North Yorkshire Police blogged about its benefits.

“Everywhere in the world now has an address, even a tent in the middle of a field or a ditch on the North York Moors,” he wrote.

“For example corrosive.koala.daffodils will take you to the picnic bench on the cinder track cycle route near Ravenscar, and tracking.forgotten.buzz will take you to the summit shelter on Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales.”

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Many in the emergency services find the app helpful when locating accident victims

But in a Twitter discussion on the topic, others working in the field expressed reservations.

Ross Fullerton, chief information officer at the London Ambulance Service, tweeted some of his, with the caveat that these were his own views and not those of his employer: “Doesn’t handle multilingual situations at all, Some inappropriate language for certain contexts. And not compliant with any open standards. Not much is really free in the long term, what assurance is there here? I do get the benefits but there needs to be balance.”

In the same Twitter thread, someone else pointed out that each square uses three different words in each of the 37 languages supported by the firm, meaning that each grid square actually has 37 different addresses, which could be confusing.

Others have asked what happens if the firm goes bust, because the details are not shared on a public database, so the whole system would be effectively lost.

Emergency services’ computer systems – known as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) – usually lack the ability to accurately find 999 callers who are unsure of their location.

But work done on how to get GPS co-ordinates from mobile devices to the emergency service, produced the Advanced Mobile Location (AML) specification, which silently and automatically sends an SMS containing the GPS co-ordinates to the emergency authority. It is available on both Apple and Android handsets.

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Some question whether words can be culturally neutral in the same way as numbers

The problem arises in integrating AML with the CAD, which is difficult, and that’s why the emergency services are looking for alternatives.

While what3words does not charge the emergency services and charities to use the service, businesses which use it “to improve customer experience” must license its API (application programming interface) and SDK (software development kit).

It currently has more than 1,000 partnerships with businesses, charities and institutions, including Domino Pizza, AirBnB, Lonely Planet and the United Nations.

Both Ford and Mercedes-Benz use the system for in their vehicles and China’s WM Motors and India’s Tata Motors have just announced that they will use the system to help drivers navigate.

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For a UK couple hiking in the Himalayas, the app proved crucial

Traveller Assist, a company which provides emergency help for business and leisure travellers on behalf of insurance companies, also announced its formal partnership with what3words this week, after what it described as a successful pilot.

That trial included getting someone to hospital after a diving accident in the Maldives, and the rescue of a business traveller who was in Somalia when a car bomb exploded nearby. The security incident triggered his insurance policy and he requested an evacuation but did not know his exact location.

Another of its customers, Robert Ward, detailed how he was trekking with his wife at 4,500 metres in Dingbouch en route to Everest Base Camp.

His wife fell, injuring her head and shoulder, so her husband called the emergency number on their travel insurance documents.

Traveller Assist sent him a message via WhatsApp with a link to download the app, and in less than two minutes their location was identified, and a helicopter sent to transport the couple to hospital in Kathmandu.

“I’m not very tech-savvy, but after clicking on the link that was sent to me, I had the app within a minute and it was very simple to use.” Mr. Ward said.

“I’ve been telling everyone I know to download it because you just never know, do you?”

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