Traditional names are drenched in meaning – so how will what3words change how we see the world?

The what3words labels Paul's Cathedral. Image: what3words.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like for the first astronauts to be so far above the ground that the shape of whole countries could be seen at once. Most of us now have grown up knowing the exact shape of the world all our lives, with pictures taken of it from the outside. For those astronauts, it was new.

But even they recognised what they saw, of course: they already had maps telling them the shape of the landmasses below.

The effort required to produce these from the ground was enormous. Starting in the 1750s, the Cassini family took 100 years to complete a triangulation survey of France and publish what we would recognise today as the first map to really get the geography right.

Before that, maps had other purposes. The 12th century Hereford Mappa Mundi represents a vision of the geography of the world, but also an understanding of history, with a progression of important places westwards (down) from Eden in the East. In other words, the world turned around Jerusalem. The nearest thing we have today to a semi-religious document that also tells you where you are is the tube map. As the physical and abstract have converged in modern maps, we’ve lost some of the sense of maps as cultural projects.

Any point on Earth can now be pinpointed to within meters and superimposed on an aerial image – but this level of precision is not easily grasped and read by the human mind. Our accuracy has increased faster than we’ve been able to symbolically fill in the gaps. You can look at your phone and see yourself standing in the middle of a field, but “where” is that exact point? A map can give you 10 digit coordinates – but those are fairly useless if you’re trying to describe the location to another person.

what3words has an interesting approach to this problem. It’s divided the world into squares, 3m along each side, and given each square a three word reference. Greenwich Observatory, for example, is “foster.complains.liked”.

The idea is that this creates a much higher level of accuracy, but in a way that’s easier to remember. It’s a human scale idea of global navigation:  three words can be communicated much easier than two long streams of numbers.

what3words isn’t a coordinate system, but describes itself as a “human interface for latitude & longitude”. Each word doesn’t modify the previous, and neighbouring squares have nothing in common. The next square over from “foster.complains.liked” is “watch.grain.spices”.

This lack of continuity is intentional: similar words are not put anywhere near each other. The idea is that, if you make a mistake, you’ll be so far off that you’ll immediately realise it. This premise may be flawed, given how wrong people can go when they blindly follow GPS; but it’s an interesting philosophy of place to demand that each location be recognisably unique from everything around it.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Image: UNESCO.

If you can’t quite see the point of this chances are you already have an address. what3words see itself as being for parts of the world where there is no address system, or for communities and regions that have yet to be incorporated into one. For instance, Cartiero in Brazil use the system to create a postal system in favelas, where official mapping, house naming or coding is practical non-existent.

Mongolia’s national post office is in the process of starting to use this system: its combination of vast territory and few named roads is ideal for such technology. 

w3w uses words as easy-to-remember glyphs, stripped of their meaning. They are there to piggyback on the fact we can remember and communicate thousands of concepts, but only relatively short sequences of symbols.

In a technical appraisal of the system, Professor Robert Barr of the University of Liverpool described how the system avoided place names acquiring meaning:

Certain roads, counties, towns or postal districts acquire a reputation or a familiarity based on the attributes of the place rather than the location. It is not the intention or the design of the w3w system to enable such familiarity as adjacent squares will have very different w3w combinations of words addressing them.”

In this way w3w is intentionally unromantic: addresses are atomised. There will never be a “Summer Street”, named for a word commonly found in an area’s w3w addresses, because no such word exists. It seems strange to have an address made of words that is incapable of developing meaning. There will be no w3w-as-identity: no “postcode lotteries”, no “postcode gangs”, no “90210”.

This will mean losing something: traditional names are drenched in meaning. I live in Croydon, one of London’s 32 boroughs. Croydon has a long history before it was just a part of London, making an appearance in the doomsday book as “Croindene”. Its etymology is thought to be rooted in the Anglo-Saxon for “crocus valley” – a name  suggesting the physical geography of the area and the human use of the settlement. The w3w for the centre of town is “spot.safety.token”.

Britain is an island in northern Europe, the place where the Britons lived. Through the inward migration of Germanic-speaking tribes, Britain became less and less Brittonic, with cohesive British settlements remaining only in isolated parts of the island. The new-comers called the natives “alien”, “foreigner”. “Wælisc” became “Wealh”, became “Welsh”. Cornwall and Wallonia have the same origin. All of this is encoded into our maps – a guide to our history even if they don’t include Eden.

Creating a system that is unusable as symbolic language is an attempt to produce a purely technological and apolitical mapping technology. But there is no such thing.

In memoriam: Middlesex, shown here in Thomas Kitchin's 1769 map, no longer exists. But people still include it in their postal addresses. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In Seeing Like A State, James C. Scott describes the long emergence of the modern nation state as a process of blunting and erasing local differences to make the fringes more legible and understandable to the centre. Last names develop for taxation; maps exist to remove the need for local knowledge to navigate. If you don’t need to ask directions, the state can exercise its power without local consent.

w3w gives people living in the unmapped world the ability to make themselves legible to the global system. This is immediately useful to them. It lets postal systems expand, and deliver services much faster than would otherwise be possible, creating a powerful ad-hoc system that can fill in until someone gets around to mapping the streets.

As what3words describe the current situation:

This means that around 4 billion people are invisible; unable to report crime; unable to get deliveries or receive aid; and unable to exercise many of their rights as citizens because they simply have no way to communicate where they live.

In other words, what3words describes itself as a tool of empowerment, letting people connect themselves up to the global economy. But any means of mapping might be equally useful as a tool of oppression. w3w will have matured as a system the first time a tax bill arrives at “squads.someday.subsystems” – or a political dissident is arrested at “lifted.shoemakers.maddened”.

You can be mapped without your consent by people who mean you harm.


One risk for what3words is that a competitor open-source system could be produced relatively quickly. It wouldn’t need to be as good at separating similar addresses (or do that at all): it would simply need to exist, to have a little bit of support behind it, and be cheaper. Betamax was better than VHS – but a clever idea is no protection, if a cheaper implementation is almost as good. This could significantly set back the usefulness of any individual system: you might find yourself in “clocks.even.await” and “apple,north,book” and “#heavy#chefs#neat” at the same time.

But rival co-ordinate systems are perhaps inevitable. And while your location is physical, the idea of “place” is human. Middlesex no longer exists, but people claim to live there. Google Maps tells you different things about contested borders depending, where you view it from.

Technology can tell you where you are to ever greater precision – but we will always exist in many places, all at once.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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