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This question is a result of seeing a headline about Mercedes Benz adding What2Words to its in-dash navigation system. I think I understand what What3Words is about but I can't help but feel I'm missing something about how & why I'd want to use it.

In a nutshell, it places a roughly 3m x 3m grid over the planet. Each "square" is given a three word identifier. I give people the three words as my location. Great! Now that we have a basic understanding, let's meet for pizza and beer at whiskey.tango.foxtrot around 6pm.

Without using a computer, how do I find whiskey.tango.foxtrot? A street address (123 main street, anytown, USA) doesn't require any electronic tech and it even works when the power grid goes down. If I'm across the city but on the same street, I can look at the numbers and just walk. I might be 50 yards from cat.dog.chicken but how does that relate to my current position of donkey.cat.moose? I know that 250 main street, anytown, USA is fairly close to 123 main street.

A latitude / longitude coordinate pair gives me absolute location and I can estimate distance between multiple pairs. Think maps, sextants, stars, etc - you can locate yourself on the globe. Think USGS topo quad sheets. Latitude increase as you move away from the equator. Longitude increase as you move away from the Prime Meridian.

W3W seems to use a proprietary algorithm and requires using its service to decode W3W. You don't know what word is adjacent to another word and unlike lat/lon, you cannot determine direction from two words.

I understand W3W is easier to remember than addresses or coordinates but, in my opinion, the wheels quickly fall off when the technology (internet connectivity, cell service, electricity, a computer) is taken away.

I've considered using W3W on a project but determined the ease of remembering it -seemingly a huge selling point - was outweighed by actually being able to use the values.

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    its kind of just an interesting gimmick from what Ive seen. Im surprised to learn that Mercedez Benz is using it. – atxgis Sep 25 '17 at 18:16
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There are lots of places that do not have an addressing system (think of slums) or an hard to use one (different disconnected streets having the same name, different names for the same street, very hard to find door number etc). The W3W overcomes these issues and are easier to remember than a 9 digit lat/long.. BUT, as you found, you still need a computer to translate them to an actual coordinate.

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I don't think you can.

As you stated, the algorithm used to arrive at the location/word combination is proprietary. So how could you do this away from the IP owner's service without them telling you their method?

Secondly, how would you or would you want to?

There is approximately 170 000 regularly used words in the English language. 3 samples gives us 8.1e14 combinations. That is more than enough to give each square metre of surface (5.1e14) a 3-word combination.

To give each 9 metre area a unique 3-word combination using the smallest word set, you would still need about 70 000 unique words. The average native speaker has a vocabulary of about 42 000.

So you could use single syllable, common words in higher density areas and use bigger words in the open ocean or arctic where no one is going to be meeting for coffee. But that might mess up a easy to use method based on alphabetic order, but the alphabetic method afoul of people not being able to spell the word or weird regional changes of spelling (colour vs color).

Sadly, I think the numbers are far too large for an average human to comfortably use day-to-day without computer assistance, or a paper method that rivals road atlas of the pre-GPS era.


Another point is that while the 3-word method is accurate to a location it lack specificity. If you are saying, 'meet me at X location' it works great but it does not work great if it is 'deliver letter to X' without tacking on an extra descriptor of how to get the letter to the proper location. In the US, this would be no easier than a mailing address, often used for physical addresses.

In organised urban areas I don't see the advantage, personally; but in rural areas, especially parks or wilderness it would be fantastic assuming What3Words is available. It would have an advantage over lat/lon for most people.


Personally, remembering 3 unrelated words would be far more difficult for me than an unit number, cardinal direction, and a word.

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