A 3-Word Address: Geo-Coding the World with Just Three Words

The British company what3words is assigning a 3-word code to every 3m x 3m square on Earth.
Marcia Wendorf

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City, and the neighboring states of Morelos, Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca on September 19, 2017. There was extensive damage, and there were hundreds of fatalities.

A simple way to communicate the location is vital in this situation for first responders to get to where people need help. But in situations like earthquakes or hurricanes, street addresses don’t exist anymore, or in less developed nations, they may never have been marked properly in the first place.


GPS coordinates provide exact location information, but they are comprised of long strings of numbers that can be difficult to communicate by voice or text. For example, the GPS coordinates of the U.S. White House are 38.897966, -77.036361. In an emergency situation, communicating that long string of numbers would be difficult.

Addressing the world

What's needed is a simpler way to address the world, and that's just what the British company what3words has come up with.

It has created a global addressing system comprised of 3-meter by 3-meter squares with each square having a unique, fixed 3-word address. The system is available in 37 languages.

While the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words, what3words has removed hyphenated words, swear words, and homophones (which are words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings) — that leaves 40,000 words or 64 trillion unique 3-word combinations. That is more than enough to address the 57 trillion 3-meter squares on the surface of the Earth.

As they converted to languages other than English, what3words Chief Marketing Officer Giles Rhys Jones described the weird and wonderful insights they've made. For example, in the Tamil language, the word for "turtle" is considered bad luck, and it isn't included in that version of the app.

Other languages supported by the what3words app are:  Afrikaans, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Marathi, Mongolian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telegu, Thai and Turkish.

The what3words app works on any smartphone and can be used offline, which is vital for teams working in remote areas, or when cell phone infrastructure has been destroyed.

what3words in disaster response

After the 2017 Mexico City earthquake, the Mexican government, working with other providers, quickly converted GPS coordinates into 3-word addresses using the what3words app, then relayed them to first responders.

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2017 Mexican earthquake
2017 Mexican earthquake. Source: what3words

In October 2017, at NATO disaster response training exercises in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1,200 rescue team members from 34 countries came together. They included firefighters, police officers, rescue and medical professionals, and helicopter pilots.

NATO disaster response training exercises
NATO disaster response training exercises. Source: what3words

what3words was used not only in the training exercises but to identify camp facilities, such as the medical area and where food was being served.

Police and fire services in many areas of the U.K. are accepting what3words addresses from callers, and dispatchers are using them to send first responders. The areas include Avon, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Durham, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Nottinghamshire, and Norfolk. The UK Coastguard is also accepting 3-word addresses.

In South Africa, medical emergency services provider ER24 has partnered with what3words so that callers can give their 3-word addresses. This has sped up response times and ensured that help arrived even in areas without accurate addressing.

One hundred sixteen thousand people live in the Rhino Refugee Camp in Arua, Uganda, but without addresses, service workers and aid workers struggled to find locations. Now, what3words, partnering with HumanTech Innovation Lab (HTiL) and the Community Development Centre (CDC) is bringing 3-word addresses to every location within the camp.

Rhino refugee camp
Rhino refugee camp. Source: what3words

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, an organization that is working to rebuild homes in Puerto Rico that were destroyed by Hurricane Maria are using what3words to find locations. Teams found the 3-word addresses to be more user-friendly than GPS coordinates, and also more accurate since homes in Puerto Rico tend to be built close together.

Travelers visiting communities in need often bring needed supplies along with them. Those supplies are then left at drop-off locations, but these may be hard to find, with no official street addresses.

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa. Source: what3words

what3words came to the rescue in South Africa where the organization Pack for a Purpose is using it to identify drop-off locations. For example, the 3-word address stronger.bike.cherishes identifies the Madikwe Safari Lodge, where travelers can leave much-needed school supplies for the Motshabaesi Primary School.


If you have ever visited a new country with limited infrastructure and street names, you know that finding your way around can be difficult. Addresses can be often confusing or non-existent, and this leads to delayed or missed deliveries.

Pakistani digital mapping company TPL Maps is integrating what3words into its mobile and web-based maps using the Urdu-language version. This will allow for faster and more accurate navigation around Pakistan.

Ford automobile owners who have an embedded navigation system and any version of the SYNC 3 infotainment system can use their iOS or Android device to input a 3-word what3words address.

Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company partners to offer precise navigation. Source: what3words

The service is available in the U.K. and Ireland (in English), in Germany (in German), in Spain (in Spanish), in the U.S. (in English and Spanish), and in Mexico (in Spanish).

A 3-Word Address: Geo-Coding the World with Just Three Words
Jaguar Land Rover and the Isle of Mull. Source: what3words

Mercedes-Benz has integrated what3words into its navigation systems on 2018 A-Class vehicles and those having the COMAND system. This allows Mercedes drivers to find not just a building, but the correct entrance, and to find locations that don't have an address, such as a scenic viewpoint.

Sports venues, such as Britain's famous Wembley Stadium, are using what3words to specify what entrance you should use depending on the location of your seats.


Spanish and Portuguese ride-hailing service Cabify has added what3words to its service, enabling drivers to find just the right drop-off and pickup locations. These can be a specific entrance to a building, a street corner or a park gate.

Cabify's users don't need to speak Spanish or Portuguese. They can use the what3words app to convert a 3-word address from their own language into the local language.

In Saudia Arabia, ride-hailing service Jeeny has added 3-word addresses, allowing for quicker service and more accurate estimates of pick-up times.

While Uber and Lyft aren't currently using what3words, riders can enter a 3-word address into the what3words app, and it will be converted into GPS coordinates.


If you're trying to find an Airbnb in London, you might be in for a shock if it's on Church Road. There are actually 14 separate Church Roads in London, while in Mexico City, there are 632 Juarez Streets, and in San Francisco, there are at least five different Park Streets.

That's why Airbnb hosts around the world are adding what3words 3-word addresses to their booking confirmations.

If you've chosen to stay at Zorigt and Otgonbayar's Airbnb teepee in the Taiga forest of northern Mongolia, you're in luck. As the couple follows their nomadic reindeer herd, Zorigt inputs their latest 3-word address as soon as they set up camp. If you're ready to go, their last location is 'evaluate.video.nails.'

Airbnb Mongolia
Airbnb in Mongolia. Source: what3words

U.S. travel company Trip Advisor is adding 3-word addresses, and shared workspace company WeWork in Japan is placing 3-word addresses on the front of their buildings.

When travel guide company Lonely Planet added what3words to their travel guide for Mongolia, they had no idea that the system would prove so popular that it has been adopted by the Mongolian postal service and bank.

The what3words app is compatible with Google Maps, Waze, and Citymapper.


In Saudi Arabia, grocery delivery service Wadi promises its customers two-hour delivery, and what3words has helped them live up to that promise. The app has eliminated so-called last-mile uncertainties.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the open-air Lourensford market is attaching 3-word addresses to its stalls and pop-ups. Festivals throughout Europe are using what3words to design their layouts and infrastructure and for policing, and first aid.

In Germany, last-mile delivery service Rytle is using 3-word addresses to get its electric cargo bikes to their pickup and drop-off locations. In tests conducted across the U.K. and London, delivery companies saw efficiencies of 30 percent or more when using the what3words app.

Rytle. Source: what3words

For a company such as UPS, eliminating one mile, per driver, per day over one year can save up to $50 million.

Hillman Energy is keeping track of its workers who perform assessments and maintenance on gas wells across Ontario, Canada with the what3words and Antris apps. Workers enter 3-word addresses for each location they plan to visit, and checkpoints are created for them to check into when they arrive. Managers know where their team members are and that they are safe.

what3words in the media

Movie director Steven Spielberg used the what3words app to create the shot list for his 2018 film Ready Player One, and in a January 2018 episode of the TV series "NCIS Los Angeles," when a character gets kidnapped, she leaves a what3words 3-word clue of her current location.

As what3words moves to become a global standard, you should start seeing 3-word addresses appearing on webpages, in guidebooks, and on business cards.

The possibilities for using what3words for addressing in these industries seem endless: rental car, parking lot, cemetery, RV, food truck, hunting, birding, fishing, and photography.

Ciao from wider.plug.soils.

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