The what3words app allows emergency services to pinpoint your location should you run into any trouble and need help or rescuing. Picture: ER24/what3words
The what3words app allows emergency services to pinpoint your location should you run into any trouble and need help or rescuing. Picture: ER24/what3words

Consumer Watch: With new app, you need never walk alone

By Georgina Crouth Time of article published Aug 26, 2019

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Picture the scene: You’re lost in the deep, dark forest. You’re alone, injured and in need of rescuing. It might as well be a B-grade movie but with a new app, it could have a happier ending.

With just three words - illustrate, confident, unhappy - you could direct rescue services to track you down to within 3 metres.

If you’ve downloaded what3words on your smart device and entered those three words in the app, you’d realise it’s not so bad - you’ve gone off-trail in Cecilia Forest above Constantia in Cape Town. If you needed assistance, the app is able to guide ER24 to your precise location - as long as you have cellphone signal and can make a call.

Launched in the UK six years ago, what3words developers divided the world into a grid of 57 trillion squares, measuring 3m x 3m, and each with a unique, randomly assigned three-word address.

It’s already helped emergency services find a woman who was held hostage after being roofied in a nightclub and taken to a stranger’s flat; track down hopelessly lost hikers on a freezing night in a dank forest; and rescue a hopelessly lost mother who had driven into a ditch with her young child in the car and couldn’t escape because the doors and windows wouldn’t open.

It's born from founder Chris Sheldrick’s endless problems growing up in a rural England, where their postcode did not point to their house (as they usually do in Britain), their mail would be routinely delivered to the wrong property - or they’d have to flag down delivery drivers.

It’s a problem all too familiar to those who use ride-hailing services regularly, who live in “dead zones” and those who don’t have formal addresses, which is commonplace in South Africa. Not having an address affects your ability to access social services, open bank accounts, receive deliveries, and especially to be able to summon emergency assistance. Compounding the problem is that location “pins” are also not particularly accurate.

Sheldrick’s years in the music industry, which required him trying to get bands to meet at specific entrances to venues, fuelled the idea. He told BBC: “I tried to get people to use longitude and latitude but that never caught on. 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.”

Lyndsey Duff, country manager for what3words, says the GPS technology is already being used by emergency services around the world but ER24 is their first local emergency services partner.

“Most people don’t understand GPS co-ordinates and it can be hard to use. What we did was translate GPS co-ordinates into words,” Duff explains.

The smartphone app, once downloaded, has the ability to go offline. It can be used to find your exact location, even with no data.

There’s significant potential, Duff says, with plug-ins with other mapping and navigation apps, and the ability for users to share their locations via WhatsApp, Facebook or other means.

Mercedes-Benz has the system in its cars and what3words is now being used in 35 languages, including Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu.

“In Japan, street addresses are numbered in terms of the order in which they were built. That doesn’t make sense to us but that is how they do things there. You can imagine how confusing that is to navigate, which makes these three-word addresses so invaluable,” she says, which is why they believe it should become a global standard.

Already Mongolia has adopted what3words as its postal code and the Lonely Planet guide gives the three-word addresses for its points of interest.

With the three-word address, you could navigate others to meeting points, whether for a function, a picnic on a beach, a restaurant, in a crowd, or on a road in the middle of nowhere.

In South Africa, the Platter’s Wine Guide included the what3words listings for the first time this year, which will hopefully lessen wild goose chases for some of the more obscure wine estates.

“We have a team of language specialists working for us. It takes months to develop the app for specific countries, with the help of local language speakers.”

Duff says the Afrikaans list is “cracking”, with words like boerewors, melktert, and of course, plenty of sport.

* Write to Consumer Watchdog Georgina Crouth at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @AskGeorgie.

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