Overview

Our software does not currently have support for What3Words. We will not be supporting it in the near future until we can find valid reasons to use a 3rd party coordinate translation service within Local Government and business, and for more investigation to be undertaken regarding similar sounding sets of three words being located close together and cause confusion.


If you think What3Words would be useful for you, please drop us an email explaining what you're trying to achieve.


What is What3Words?

The premise behind the What3Words system is that it's easier to communicate a location by spoken word using a series of three words that relate to a geographic coordinate (latitude / longitude). For example, it's sometimes easier to say "areas.mason.nail" over the phone instead of "X 463601  Y 152159". So if you're stuck on a mountain and there are no discernible features to tell the emergency services AND they can't locate you by your phone's location (AML) then What3Words could be a useful feature in locating you.



Accuracy

As stated on the What3Words advertising, it can place you anywhere in the world using just three words. Let's see how this compares to other options:



ExamplePrecision (metres)
Hovering your mouse over a map in a GIS (such as XMAP or Parish Online)463,601.34 / 152,159.880.01 metres (1cm)
what3words addressareas.mason.nail3 metres
Mapcodes

GBR B6H.MF9

10 metres (approx)
Ordnance Survey 8 figure grid referenceSU 6360 521510 metres
Google Pluscodes7W86+4714 metres (approx)
Ordnance Survey 6 figure grid reference

SU 63 52

100 metres


For reference, what3words isn't the only service to try this concept of shortening coordinates into more usable or understandable forms. Here's a list of other geocoding systems.



What3Words in Digital Mapping

In our opinion there is no practical use for What3Words within a digital mapping system (sometimes referred to as a GIS) as by moving your cursor around the map you'll get the exact coordinates of each location and you don't need to ring someone to communicate those positions.


When you click on the map to place an asset record, such as the position of a bench, that location is recorded to the centimetre in our database. Our software doesn't need a translation service for this because the maps you see are already in a known coordinate system (in the UK this is British National Grid).



Valid uses of What3Words*

There may be scope for members of the public using What3Words to communicate to public bodies such as Parish Councils the location of an issue. Similar examples of this have been reported in new stories, e.g. Stafford women rescued from flooded river after using app - BBC News (3rd February 2021)


However, with the Public Map feature, which will soon have the ability to report issues to those organisations, the need for communicating that location over the phone is greatly reduced. Through our research we've also found that local councils receive queries and complaints via email which usually contain a Google Maps dropped pin, again negating the need for a spoken description of a coordinate.


* in our opinion!


Financial Implications

We often get asked if we can integrate What3Words into our mapping software. We're not surprised by this as What3Words have a prolific advertising campaign to extol its virtues. However, integrating their service will cost us money (they charge integrators by lookup/translation*) and that means the overheads of the software will go up. Keeping the price of XMAP and Parish Online as low as possible is very important to us.


If we integrate the service and the prices get put up (possible and understandable given the amount of investment they're putting in), then we'd have to incur those charges or pass them onto the customer. Not something we relish the thought of.


* there are a free number of transactions but then it becomes chargeable.



Recorded Concerns

What3Words sounds like a great idea, particularly in the mountain rescue example, however there are a number of concerns that have been raised about the system design, particularly around homophones. The sets of three words are meant to sound very different to each other and any similar sounding set are meant to be hundred of miles apart, therefore flagging any error in communication.


Here's some light bedtime reading on the subject:


We are also very careful about the companies we partner with and the services we use. We like to form great relationships with our suppliers and partners who share common values. From our engagement with What3Words so far and seeing the way they've treated people within the industry we have reasons to feel that they don't share our values.



Summary

As mapping specialists with a combined experience of 70 years in the geospatial industry it's our opinion that What3Words is not needed for the applications that our customers are using our software for. However, we're going to keep an open mind and observe how the security, legal and positioning concerns play out. We'll also put our customers first and provide the very best service we can, by advising them, finding their problems and looking to solve them.


So if you believe there to be a reason to use What3Words then we'll happily explore that need and see if we can build a solution for you. Just get in touch, we love a challenge!