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What3words Ltd.
Founded2013; 11 years ago (2013)
  • Chris Sheldrick
  • Jack Waley-Cohen
  • Mohan Ganesalingam
  • Michael Dent
HeadquartersLondon, England, UK
  • Decrease −£46.4M
[1] (2022)
  • Increase −£31.5M
[1] (2022)
Number of employees
152[1] (2022)

What3words (stylized as what3words) is a proprietary geocode system designed to identify any location on the surface of Earth with a resolution of about 3 metres (9.8 ft). It is owned by What3words Limited, based in London, England. The system encodes geographic coordinates into three permanently fixed dictionary words. For example, the front door of 10 Downing Street in London is identified by ///slurs.this.shark.[2]

What3words differs from most location encoding systems in that it uses words rather than strings of numbers or letters, and the pattern of this mapping is not obvious; the algorithm mapping locations to words is copyrighted.[3]

What3words has been subject to a number of criticisms both for its closed source code[4] and the significant risk of ambiguity and confusion in its three word addresses.[5] This has resulted in some to advise against the use of What3words in safety critical applications.[6][7]

The company has a website, apps for iOS and Android, and an API for bidirectional conversion between What3words addresses and latitudelongitude coordinates.


Founded by Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Michael Dent, What3words was launched in July 2013.[8][9] Sheldrick and Ganesalingam conceived the idea when Sheldrick, working as an event organizer, struggled to get bands and equipment to the appropriate loading docks and entrances of large music venues.[10][11] Sheldrick tried using GPS coordinates, but decided that words were better than numbers after transposing two digits led a driver to the wrong location. He credits a mathematician friend for the idea of dividing the world into 3-metre (10 ft) squares, and the linguist Jack Waley-Cohen with using memorable words.[12] The company was incorporated in March 2013[13] and a patent application for the core technology filed in April 2013.[14] In November 2013, What3words raised US$500,000 of seed funding.[15]

What3words originally sold "OneWord" addresses, which were stored in a database for a yearly fee,[9] but this offering was discontinued[16] as the company switched to a business-to-business model.[17] In 2015, the company was targeting logistics companies, post offices, and couriers.[12]

In January 2018, Mercedes-Benz bought approximately 10% of the company and announced support for What3words in future versions of their infotainment and navigation system.[18]

In 2018, the company had a turnover of £274,000 and lost £11 million.[17] In the year ending December 2019, the company lost £14.5 million and had reported assets of £24.7Ml million.[19] By January 2020, the company had reached 100 employees and raised over £50 million from investors.[17] The losses continued:

  • year ending December 2020: £16.09 million.
  • year ending December 2021: £43.29 million.[20]
  • year ending December 2022: £31.53 million.[1]

In March 2021, it was announced that ITV plc had invested £2 million in What3words as the first investment in its media-for-equity scheme.[19]

Source of revenue[edit]

The what3words system and app is free for anyone to use. The company states that its revenue comes from charging businesses that benefit from its products.[21]


Stone Brewing Co. explains how customers can use What3Words to find anything (but especially beer).

Emergency services[edit]

Since 2019, What3words has seen adoption by emergency services, who can use it for free[22] and participate in media campaigns provided by What3Words[23] to promote the app.[24][25][26] By September 2021, more than 85 percent of British emergency services teams used What3words, including the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade.[27][4] Support has also been added to the Australian Government's Triple Zero Emergency Plus App.[28]


The Mercedes A-Class, launched in May 2018, became the first vehicle with What3words on board.[34]

Craft beer[edit]

In the summer of 2018, Stone Brewing Co. produced the first What3words beer. Fear.Movie.Lions IPA, designates the location of its Richmond, Virginia brewery.[35][36]



What3words divides the world into a grid of 57 trillion 3-by-3-metre (10 ft × 10 ft) squares, each of which has a three-word address. The company says they do their best to remove homophones and spelling variations;[37] however, at least 32 pairs of English near-homophones still remain.[38]

Wordlists are available in 50 languages,[39] each of which uses a list of 25,000 words (except for English, which uses 40,000 to cover sea as well as land).[40] Translations are not direct, as direct translations to some languages could produce more than three words. Rather, territories are localised "considering linguistic sensitivities and nuances".[41] Densely populated areas have strings of short words to aid more frequent usage; while less populated areas, such as the North Atlantic, use more complex words.[41][12]

In a 2019 blog, open standards advocate and technology expert Terence Eden questioned the cultural neutrality of using words rather than the numbers generated by map coordinates. "Numbers are (mostly) culturally neutral." he said, "Words are not. Is mile.crazy.shade a respectful name for a war memorial? How about tribes.hurt.stumpy for a temple?"[4]


What3words state that similar addresses are spaced as far apart as possible to avoid confusion,[42] and that similarly sounding codes have a 1 in 2.5 million chance of pointing to locations near each other.[43]

However, security researcher Andrew Tierney calculates that 75% of What3words addresses contain plural words that also exist in singular form (or the reverse).[38] Co-founder and CEO Sheldrick responded that "Whilst the overwhelming proportion of similar-sounding three-word combinations will be so far apart that an error is obvious, there will still be cases where similar sounding word combinations are nearby."[43]

Further analysis by Tierney shows that in the London area, around 1 in 24 addresses will be confusable with another London address.[6]. Other research[5] shows that the cause of these problems is that the address assignment algorithm (described in the What3Words patent) does a poor job of randomising the wordlist, essentially confirming Tierney's findings and showing that they are not an isolated issue. The same research also identifies another source of potential confusion[44] caused by the AugoSuggest algorithm failing to return the correct location given an ambiguous address.

In September 2022, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport used What3words to direct mourners to the end of the queue to view the Queen lying in state in London. Of the first five codes published, four led to the wrong place,[45] including a suburb of London some 15 miles from the real end of the queue.[46] Officials later moved to an automated system to generate the identifiers, as they realised having people involved in the process resulted in typos.[45]


According to Rory Sutherland from the advertising agency Ogilvy in a 2014 op-ed piece for The Spectator, the system's advantages are memorability, accuracy, and non-ambiguity in speech.[47]

Mountain rescue[edit]

Mountain rescue services in the UK have warned against relying on the app:

  • In December 2019, the Lake District Search & Mountain Rescue Association noted that "mishearing or misspelling words tended to cause problems" and warned hikers not to rely on it.[7]
  • In June 2021, Mountain Rescue England and Wales raised concerns about the credibility of reported What3words coordinates, following incorrect information being given about 45 locations over 12 months. Spelling issues and local accents were reported as being part of the problem.[48]


The What3words system has been criticised for being controlled by a private business, and the software for being patented and not freely usable.[4]

The company has pursued a policy of issuing copyright claims against individuals and organisations that have hosted or published files of the What3words algorithm or reverse-engineered code that replicates the service's functionality, such as the free and open source implementation WhatFreeWords; the whatfreewords.org website was taken down following a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notice issued by What3words.[49] This policy has extended to removing comments on social media which refer to unauthorised versions. In late April 2021, a security researcher who had offered on Twitter to share WhatFreeWords software was contacted by What3Words's law firm, requiring him to delete the tweets and the software, and implying that legal action might follow non-compliance.[50]


The site has been parodied by others who have created services including What3Emojis[51] using emojis, What3Birds[52] using British birds, What3fucks[53] using swear words, Four King Maps[54][55] also using swear words (covering only the British Isles), and What3Numbers[56] using OpenStreetMap tile identifiers.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d What3words Limited: Annual Report and Financial Statements For the Year Ended 31 December 2022
  2. ^ Leatherdale, Duncan (15 August 2019). "What3words: The app that can save your life". BBC News. Retrieved 31 January 2021.
  3. ^ Whittaker, Zack (30 April 2021). "What3Words sent a legal threat to a security researcher for sharing an open-source alternative". TechCrunch. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d Wakefield, Jane (21 September 2019). "What3words: 'Life-saving app' divides opinion". BBC News.
  5. ^ a b Arthur, R (2023). "A critical analysis of the What3Words geocoding algorithm". PLOS ONE. 18 (10): e0292491. arXiv:2308.16025. Bibcode:2023PLoSO..1892491A. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0292491. PMID 37878572.
  6. ^ a b Tierney, Andrew (20 September 2021). "What3Words The Algorithm". Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  7. ^ a b Humphries, Will (26 December 2019). "Don't rely on location app What3words, say rescuers". The Times. Retrieved 20 September 2022.
  8. ^ Rundle, Michael (2 July 2013). "'What3Words' Wants To Replace Postcodes With Words – For The Entire Globe". HuffingtonPost.
  9. ^ a b Lomas, Natasha (8 July 2013). "Location-Pinpointing Startup what3words Sells 10,000+ OneWord Map-Pins In First Week". TechCrunch.
  10. ^ Jacobs, Frank (25 January 2016). "Find Any of Earth's 75 Trillion Places With Just 3 Words". Big Think. Retrieved 22 February 2024.
  11. ^ Lanks, Belinda (11 October 2016). "This App Gives Even the Most Remote Spots on the Planet an Address". Magenta.as.
  12. ^ a b c Margolis, Johnathan (20 October 2015). "What3Words: new tech that will find any location". Financial Times. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  13. ^ "What3words Limited - Overview (free company information from Companies House)". Companies House.
  14. ^ "A Method and Apparatus for Identifying and Communicating Locations". World Intellectual Property Organization. 19 April 2013.
  15. ^ Avellana, Nicel Jane (6 November 2013). "Startup what3words gets USD 500,000 in seed round". Venture Capital Post.
  16. ^ "Why can't I buy my own words or change some of the words?". what3words.
  17. ^ a b c Shead, Sam (15 January 2020). "A navigation startup pivots and grows, but profitability is still down the road". Business Insider.
  18. ^ Korosec, Kirsten (11 January 2018). "Why Daimler Invested in a Startup That Has Labeled the World With Unique Three-Word Addresses". Fortune.
  19. ^ a b Lepitak, Stephen (25 March 2021). "British Broadcaster ITV Invests $2.7 Million in Location Finding Platform What3words". Adweek.
  20. ^ What3words Limited: Annual Report and Financial Statements For the Year Ended 31 December 2021
  21. ^ "How does what3words make money?". what3words Help Center. Retrieved 27 August 2023.
  22. ^ a b Power, Julie (18 May 2020). "Three random words saved Cornelia on a cold wet day of bushwalking". Sydney Morning Herald.
  23. ^ "What3words July 2022 - social media plan". WhatDoTheyKnow. Staffordshire Police. 16 August 2022. Retrieved 3 June 2023.
  24. ^ "Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership asks public to use What3Words app when calling emergency services". Warwickshire Police. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
  25. ^ "Haldimand County Emergency Services joins national week of action to help 9-1-1 callers #KnowExactlyWhere in an emergency with what3words app". Haldimand County. 3 October 2022. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
  26. ^ "Download what3words". Nottinghamshire Police. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
  27. ^ Moules, Jonathan (26 September 2021). "Chris Sheldrick of What3words: lessons from scaling a start-up". Financial Times.
  28. ^ "Triple Zero". Australian Government. Australian Government.
  29. ^ "'Life-saving' app used in Western Isles hillwalker rescue". BBC News. BBC. 28 September 2019.
  30. ^ Yap, Gracia (1 November 2020). "Boys, 14, got lost in MacRitchie forest trying to find a shrine". The Straits Times.
  31. ^ Pippin, Cory (20 July 2022). "Kayaker floating in Mobile Bay rescued thanks to Baldwin Co. 9-1-1 GPS technology". WPMI. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  32. ^ "Bei Tröstau: Helfer üben gemeinsam - Frankenpost". www.frankenpost.de (in German). Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  33. ^ Cilliers, Roland (5 August 2022). "Milton rock climbing incident leaves woman with serious injuries". www.insidehalton.com. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  34. ^ Brecht, Michael (5 April 2018). "What3words: Diese Ortungssoftware gibt es bald serienmäßig in Daimlers A-Klasse". Die Welt (in German).
  35. ^ "Stone Brewing Releases Fear.Movie.Lions Double IPA Nationwide". Brewbound. 12 April 2019. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  36. ^ "Introducing the world's first what3words beer". what3words.com. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  37. ^ "How do you take into account words that sound the same or can be spelled in different ways?". What3words support. Archived from the original on 9 August 2020. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  38. ^ a b Tierney, Andrew (29 April 2021). "Why What3Words is not suitable for safety critical applications" (PDF). Mountain Rescue. No. Summer 2021. p. 30. ISSN 1756-8749. (blog mirror)
  39. ^ "Celebrating 50 Languages". Official website - what3words.com.
  40. ^ Turk, Vicki (18 August 2018). "What3words changed how we map the world. And it didn't stop there". Wired. Retrieved 5 October 2022.
  41. ^ a b Lo Dico, Joy (6 February 2021). "Postcodes from the edge: how an upstart app is changing the world's addresses". Financial Times. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  42. ^ "How are the words assigned?". What3words support. Archived from the original on 9 August 2020. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  43. ^ a b Wakefield, Jane (29 April 2021). "App used by emergency services under scrutiny". BBC News. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  44. ^ Arthur, Rudy (15 September 2023). "A Critical Analysis of the What3Words Geocoding Algorithm". PLOS ONE. 18 (10): e0292491. arXiv:2308.16025. Bibcode:2023PLoSO..1892491A. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0292491. PMID 37878572. Retrieved 22 April 2024.
  45. ^ a b Turner, Camilla (14 September 2022). "Mourners sent to back of the queue (in California) as tracking system suffers early blips". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 19 September 2022.
  46. ^ Stokel-Walker, Chris (14 September 2022). "UK Government Sends Mourners to North Carolina to Queue for the Queen". Gizmodo. Retrieved 19 September 2022.
  47. ^ Sutherland, Rory (25 October 2014). "The best navigation idea I've seen since the Tube map". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 5 January 2015.
  48. ^ Wakefield, Jane (1 June 2021). "Rescuers question what3words' use in emergencies". BBC.
  49. ^ Writer authorised to act on behalf of what3words Ltd (5 July 2016). "Urgent DMCA takedown notice". Letter to GitHub staff.{{cite press release}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  50. ^ Whittaker, Zack (30 April 2021). "What3Words sends legal threat to a security researcher for sharing an open-source alternative".
  51. ^ "what3emojis". what3emojis.com.
  52. ^ "Location Encoding Systems". checkmypostcode.uk. What3Birds...is a parody of the commercial What3Words system, which isn't suitable for this website as it doesn't have a published, open source algorithm. It does, though, work - every postcode on this website has a unique, three bird code. The list of birds was taken (in simplified form) from the British Ornithologists' Union's official list of birds recorded in Britain.
  53. ^ "what3fucks". Archived from the original on 5 December 2019.
  54. ^ "Four King Maps".
  55. ^ Corfield, Gareth (14 August 2021). "Tired: What3Words. Wired: A clone location-tracking service based on FOUR words – and they are all extremely rude". The Register. London. Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  56. ^ "what3numbers". Github.io.
  57. ^ Diaz, Ann-Christine (26 June 2015). "What3Words Innovation Grand Prix Cannes – Special: Cannes Lions – Advertising Age". adage.com.
  58. ^ Avalos, George (12 November 2015). "San Jose: Tech awards honor an array of laureates". Mercury News.