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what3words is a geocoding system for the communication of locations with a resolution of three metres. What3words encodes geographic coordinates into three dictionary words; the encoding is permanently fixed. For example, the omphalos of Delphi, believed by the ancient Greeks to be the center of the world, was located at "spooky.solemn.huggers". what3words differs from most other location encoding systems in that it displays three words rather than long strings of numbers or letters.
What3words has a website, apps for iOS and Android, and an API that enables bidirectional conversion between what3words address and latitude/longitude coordinates. As the system relies on a fixed algorithm rather than a large database of every location on earth, it works on devices with limited storage and no Internet connection.
According to the company its revenue comes from charging businesses for high-volume use of the API that converts between 3 words and coordinates; services for other users are free of charge.
Founded by Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam, and Michael Dent, what3words launched in July 2013. Sheldrick and Ganesalingam originally conceived the idea after Sheldrick struggled to get equipment and bands to event locations on time due to inadequate address information while working as a concert organiser. The company was incorporated on 5 March 2013 and a patent application for the core technology filed on 19 April 2013.
On 3 November 2015, what3words completed a $US3.5 million Series A funding round led by Intel Capital, with Li Ka-shing's Horizons Ventures participating. On 29 June 2016, what3words completed a $US8.5 million Series B round led by Aramex.
On 10 January 2018, Mercedes-Benz bought approximately ten percent of the company and announced what3words support in future versions of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment and navigation system. The A-Class, launched in May 2018, became the first vehicle in the world with what3words on board.
In March 2016, the company announced that Steve Coast, founder of OpenStreetMap, joined the company as Chief Evangelist, charged with developing and strengthening partnerships in North America.
what3words uses a grid of the world made up of 57 trillion squares of 3 metres by 3 metres. Each square has been given an address of three words in each of many languages—they are not translations of the same words. what3words addresses (and web and app user interface) are available in an increasing number of languages—36 as of April 2019[update], according to the what3words online map "Settings".
Each what3words language uses a wordlist of 25,000 words (40,000 in English, as it covers the sea as well as land). The lists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation. Homophones and variant spellings are treated to minimize any potential for confusion, and offensive words are removed.
The what3words algorithm actively distributes similar-sounding three-word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated error-checking. The result is that if a three-word combination is entered slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid what3words reference, the location will usually be so far away from the user's intended area that the error will be immediately obvious to both a user and an intelligent error-checking system.
The what3words system uses a proprietary algorithm in combination with a limited database; the core technology is contained within a file of about 10 MB. The database is used to assign more memorable words to locations in urban areas. what3words originally sold "OneWord" addresses, which were stored in a database for a yearly fee, but this feature has been cancelled.
The main claimed advantages of what3words are memorability, error-detection, unambiguous nature of words for most everyday and non-technical uses and voice input.
According to the what3words Web site some UK emergency services support 3-word locations. The same site listed 8 countries that had adopted what3words as an addressed standard: Kiribati, Mongolia, Sint-Maarten, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Tonga, Nigeria and Solomon Islands.
Supporters of open standards criticise the what3words system for being controlled by a private business and the software for being copyrighted and not freely usable. That similar addresses are purposely far away from each other is also seen by some as a disadvantage. The site has been parodied by others who have created services including What3Emojis and What3Numbers.
- Grand Prix for Innovation at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
- The Tech Awards Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award
Alphanumeric competitors include:
- Open Location Code (2014)
- Makaney Code (2011)
- Geohash (2008)
- MapCode (2008)
- Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system
- Maidenhead Locator System
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