Where Am I? Finding yourself – and having fun – with what3words

Rob Ainsley looks at location systems – hopefully not needed in emergencies – and enjoys the word combinations thrown up by what3words

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A friend came a cropper while out gravel riding last year. His co-rider called 999 and gave an OS map grid reference as the location.

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No, I need a road name or postcode, insisted the operator. Er, we’re miles from a road in some barley fields he replied. He tried 999 again, reaching a different operator, with similar results. It was third time lucky: this dispatcher understood the grid reference, an air ambulance was sent, and all ended well.

It raises the question of how to specify your remote location in an emergency. For instance, another friend took a tumble in the North York Moors recently. Fortunately, we didn’t need to call 999 (or 112, which achieves exactly the same). The offer of a cream tea proved remedial enough. But what if we had needed to explain where we were?

It turns out there are very many ways of doing so. Conventional latitude and longitude (54°22’44.3”N, 0°37’09.3”W); the same, but in six decimal places (54.378976, -0.619259); a Google initiative called Plus Codes (99HJ+H7 Flask Inn, Whitby); OS map ref (SE 89781 99042); or narrative description (near Burn Howe Duck Pond, about 1km ENE of Lilla Cross).

There are yet more systems, such as NAC, UTM, and IARU, aka Radio Hams’ Maidenhead codes. I couldn’t work out how to evaluate that one online though. And that was calmly sat at my desk with a coffee, so it might not be the best option when someone is panicking in front of you.

However, a self-confident recent candidate for global location is What3words. It slices the world up into 3m x 3m squares and, via a secret algorithm, assigns each a unique three-word code. Tom Simpson’s memorial on Ventoux is: nestled.crashed.bulges, for example; the Moors mishap above occurred at: shipyards.total.blending.

It’s slickly marketed and some critics are uneasy about What3words’ practical and technical aspects. But Yorkshire’s ambulance responders (for instance) tell me they’re trained to accept them, so it may be worth installing the app on your phone. It doesn’t need WIFI and works solely from GPS.

What3words is undoubtedly the most fun of all the location systems. The scope for creativity in OS grid refs, for example, is limited. Two friends realised their initials plus date of birth written as grid refs, happened to represent a roadside in Devon and a bridleway on Cadair Idris in Wales. So they turned it into a point-to-point bike ride to celebrate their joint 40th birthdays. However, few combinations of initials – less than 50 – fall on land in the UK’s OS grid. There’s an SJ, but no other -Js, for instance; there’s NS, but no other -Ss.

What3words has endless possibilities to keep you entertained. First, try looking up locations on its website (what3words.com) and see what bizarre poetry defines them. A bend on Box Hill is: atom.burst.angel; the signpost at John o’Groats is: moped.husband.untruth. Second, and more fun, put in three-word phrases to see if they exist. Chicken.club.sandwich is a house in Bangkok, while: jagged.little.pill, ironically, is in a forest in the south of Colombia. Short.sharp.shock is on Long Island in New York, and hitch.hikers.guide is in northern Queensland.

Similarly, electric.light.orchestra is in Ulsan, South Korea; liberty.equality.fraternity is in a bay by Warkworth, New Zealand; location.location.location is in Russia, near the Finnish border…

All of this virtual globe-trotting is inspiring me. I think I’ll go for a journey today. Explore the lounge, side-jaunt to the bathroom, coffee stop in the kitchen. Finally up the rickety ladder to get those nostalgic photos down from the attic to relive some old bike trips.

Hmm. Maybe not the last trip. We want to avoid 999s for a while.

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