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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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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