This map lets you identify any 3x3m spot in the world with just three words

The high alter at St Paul's. There's no hidden meaning, Image: What3Words.

Maps, as I'm sure we can all agree, are great – but they do have their limitations. They're pretty shoddy at helping us navigate large bodies of green space, or the parts of the world where standardised addresses and mapping haven't taken hold. 

What3Words, a new mapping app and website, claims that around 4bn people globally don't have a usable address. This means they can't receive deliveries or aid, and it hampers everything from meeting contacts to setting up a businesss.

That's why What3Words is aiming to offer a radically new form of address, relying on strings of words, rather than numbers. 

The company's founders simply divided the world into 57 trillion squares, each measuring 3m by 3m. Each one has been randomly assigned a set of three words, available in multiple languages. I'm sitting, for example, in nails.proud.dishes. If I wanted someone to meet me on a specific point on the road outside, I could tell them to go to froze.thick.dame. 

This decision to use words rather than numerical or digital information may seem backward-looking, but it is a way to ensure that this new method isn't restricted to those with phones or technical ability. The map, with its three word combinations, can be used offline and locations can be transmitted orally, and reasonably memorably.

Standard memory tricks ask you to think of a story using the words you're meant to remember – "the lake froze, but it wasn't thick enough to stop the dame falling through", for example. It's far harder to remember streams of numbers, or even addresses.The numerical equivalent of the What3Words squares are two numbers with six decimal places, which makes one realise quite how simple the three words are in comparison:


The system is actually, in most cases, even more accurate than an address, as most buildings are locations are larger than 3x3m. The closest comparable technology is the "drop pin" feature offered by many apps, which allows you to send an exact location to a contact. But this ability is restricted to those transmitting and receiving information on smartphones, tablets or computers. 

Of course, the success of the What3Words system requires people to start using it en masse – it's not much use for you to send a friend a text saying "supply truth drips" only for them to have no idea what you're talking about (it means "I'm on the Strand", Luddite).

But it may turn out that we in the developed world don't need what What3Words is offering it's elsewhere that it could really make a difference.


Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.