This Smartphone App Can Save Your Life with Just 3 Words

The developers of the app have divided the world into 57 trillion squares.
Chris Young

Kicked. Converged. Soccer.

These three words helped save the lives of a group of hikers who found themselves lost and alone at night while strolling through Hamsterley Forest, England, this Sunday.

Thanks to a clever geocoding smartphone app, search and rescue were able to pinpoint their exact location. Now, police are urging people to download the app, which they say has already saved several lives.


A life-saving smartphone app

Jess Tinsley and her group of friend were doing a planned five-mile circular hike through the 2,000 hectares of the Hamsterley Forest, in County Durham, the U.K., last week when they realized they were hopelessly lost.

As the BBC reports, at 22:30 BST they were able to find a spot with phone signal and dial for emergency services.

"We were in a field and had no idea where we were," Tinsley told the BBC. "It was absolutely horrendous. I was joking about it and trying to laugh because I knew if I didn't laugh I would cry."

As soon as they got through to emergency services, the call handler told them to download an app called what3words.

"I had never heard of it," Tinsley said.

But within a minute of the app being downloaded, the police said they had the exact location of the stranded hikers and a rescue team was on its way to get them.

The County Durham police department later tweeted that the group was safely found:

What does what3words do?

The app, essentially, points to a very specific location, anywhere in the world.

The developers behind the app have divided the world into 57 trillion locatable squares that can be found using GPS.

This Smartphone App Can Save Your Life with Just 3 Words
Source: what3words

Each square measures 3m by 3m (10ft by 10ft) and each one has a randomly assigned three-word address.

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For example, '///dressing.flown.swim' should point to the halfway line of the pitch at Barcelona FC's Camp Nou football stadium, in Barcelona, Spain. '///' will take you to a very precise viewpoint at Yosemite National Park, USA.

This Smartphone App Can Save Your Life with Just 3 Words
Source: what3words

Replacing imprecise postcodes

The company was founded by Chris Sheldrick, who thought up the idea after growing up in rural Britain, and getting sick of flagging down delivery drivers who didn't know where to go - thanks to imprecise postcodes.

As the BBC reports, ten years as a musician in a band only worsened Sheldrick's frustration - trying to meet band members in a precise location is never easy.

"I tried to get people to use longitude and latitude but that never caught on," Sheldrick told the BBC.

"It got me thinking, how can you compress 16 digits into something much more user-friendly?

"I was speaking to a mathematician and we found there were enough combinations of three words for every location in the world."

They discovered that using only 40,000 words was enough.

A '3-word address revolution'

As its origin in postal frustrations suggests, what3words isn't only used for emergency services.

The country of Mongolia has, in fact, replaced its entire postal code system with what3word addresses.

The country's harsh rural locations and poor postal infrastructure made it an ideal candidate.

But what3words wants to go further and provide postal location services for companies and, possibly, entire nations.

In a blog post, the company says:

"Addressing around the world simply isn’t good enough. 75% of countries suffer from poor or non-existent addressing. And for the 25% who do have a reliable address, packages still go astray, couriers get lost and local businesses can’t be found."

"Something needs to be done to make addressing better."

Still, police say, for them, the most important utility is as a precise locator for emergency services - they are urging everyone to download the app.

This Smartphone App Can Save Your Life with Just 3 Words
Source: what3words

As Lee Wilkes, a crew manager for Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service, told the BBC, "It cuts out all ambiguity about where we need to be."

A 3-word revolution may just be underway.

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