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This digital location tech could help emergency crews find you in the wilderness

Several emergency responders in Canada are using What3words digital location to help people pinpoint their whereabouts when lost or injured. The company’s app or website tells you a three-word label for every 10-foot square on the planet.


What3words

Broke your ankle somewhere in Manitoba’s vast wilderness? Crashed your car on the highway somewhere outside Toronto? With location technology startup What3words, Canadians now have a new way to tell emergency responders exactly where they are — even if they don’t know themselves. And some emergency services in Los Angeles and Arizona have embraced the technology, too.

What3words divides the surface of the entire Earth into 57 trillion squares, each about 10 feet (3 meters) on edge. It then assigns a unique three-word label to each patch so hikers can find a trailhead, mail carriers can deliver the mail and tourists can find their vacation home. For example, Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend overlook of the Colorado River is at narrate.optical.carry.

London-based What3words offers its service free to emergency services, and it’s persuaded more than three quarters of UK emergency services to use it. Now it’s got a foothold in North American customers, What3words plans to announce Tuesday. That means a lot more people could be hearing about it, whether from a local fire department urging them to install the app or through a text message during a 911 emergency call.

What3words’ approach is emblematic of just how profoundly smartphones can change our lives. Latitude-longitude coordinates have been around for centuries, but they’re difficult to use, even with GPS satellites whizzing by overhead to pinpoint location. What3words’ approach boils down that position into something you can easily share in a phone call or text message, without so much fear that messing up a digit will describe a completely different spot.

“The location of callers is the most vital thing to get, but in a lot of situations it’s the most difficult thing to acquire,” said Robert Stewart, a leader of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and director of emergency communications in Brandon, Manitoba. His emergency dispatch operation covers most of the enormous area of the Canadian province and the half million people who live outside its biggest city, Winnipeg.

Other Canadian responders using the technology include the Winnipeg Police Service, North Vancouver Royal Canadian Mountain Police in British Columbia, the Halifax Regional Police in Ontario, Wood Buffalo in Alberta and the Bathurst Police Force in New Brunswick. In the US, the Los Angeles Fire Department is testing it, and the Pima County Fire Department in Arizona has decided to install it after its test.

Finding location faster

People don’t always know where they are when they need to make an emergency call. Street addresses only cover some areas. It can be hard for dispatchers to instruct people on how to get their phones to report their latitude and longitude. And triangulation technology based on cell phone tower communications can be off by miles.

People often resort to local knowledge — “I’m at Jim’s house, across from the blue truck” — which is of little use to distant dispatchers, Stewart said.

“When we’re talking about finding the location of people who’ve had a cardiac event or respiratory event, somebody who’s fallen and has a broken leg or is bleeding out, seconds make a huge difference,” added Derrick Clark, fire chief in the city of Oshawa to the east of Toronto.

His crews have at times hunted for 20 or 30 minutes around a park to try to find a caller. What3words reduces the search time to mere seconds, he said. He also experts the service to be useful for emergency callers on highways.

Tap a text message to find your location

Integrating What3words with emergency response software means dispatchers can send a text message with a What3word hyperlink to a caller. Tapping the link opens a website that shows the three-word location they can read to the dispatcher.

“It’s so easy to use and so simple,” Clark said. It’s free for consumers to use.

What3words divides the world into 57 trillion 10×10-feet squares of land. It works in several languages, including French and English.


What3words; animation by Stephen Shankland/CNET

You can also download the app ahead of time, which means the phone app can get your location even with a poor data connection. Emergency responders will encourage people to install it, though it isn’t necessary.

What3words was easy to integrate with Oshawa’s dispatch system, taking about four weeks from the decision to go ahead, said Sandra Mackey, the communications officer overseeing the change.

What3words still has to convince emergency services the technology is worth relying on, though. It’s not an open standard like latitude and longitude. But for emergency services that integrate the service, it works locally so it’s no problem if it can’t reach What3words’ servers.

Google competition

What3words isn’t alone in its ambition to improve location-sharing technology. And its biggest challenger happens to be the company operating the enormously powerful Google Maps service. 

Google is building its alternative, Plus Codes, directly into its Google Maps app on Android. Plus Codes combines six alphanumeric characters with a city name, or just use 10 alphanumeric characters. CNET headquarters, for example, can be written as QJP3+J6, San Francisco, or as 849VQJP3+J6.

What3words Chief Executive Chris Sheldrick, unsurprisingly, doesn’t like it. “I find it confusing to understand purely as a consumer,” he said. “It’s complicated to use and remember.”

Google is happy with its approach, which unlike What3words uses an open-source algorithm anyone can build into their software or service. “Open addressing standards will be critical in helping the billions of people worldwide who either don’t have an address, or have one that is difficult to locate,” spokesman Ben Jose said. “As a free, open-sourced addressing system, anyone can immediately use Plus Codes for any purpose, no matter what language they speak.”

Pandemic delivery help

What3words makes money by charging companies that make heavy use of its interface. That includes Daimler — navigation systems on newer Mercedes-Benz cars understand What3words locations — and some ride-hailing companies, Sheldrick said.

Adoption by emergency responders could increase general consumer use of What3words. That’s what happened in the UK, where people now use the service for things like delivery, ride hailing and drone flights. Small businesses found it useful when they suddenly needed to do deliveries as the  coronavirus pandemic kept customers out of shops and restaurants. What3words usage for e-commerce increased 833% with the onset of shelter in place advice.

“We’re learning what the ideal What3words ecosystem looks like,” Sheldrick said. “For us, that’s about large-scale consumer awareness.”


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