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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Here’s why we’re using a car wash to drill into the world’s highest glacier on Everest

Everest. Image: Getty.

For nearly 100 years, Mount Everest has been a source of fascination for explorers and researchers alike. While the former have been determined to conquer “goddess mother of the world” – as it is known in Tibet – the latter have worked to uncover the secrets that lie beneath its surface.

Our research team is no different. We are the first group trying to develop understanding of the glaciers on the flanks of Everest by drilling deep into their interior.

We are particularly interested in Khumbu Glacier, the highest glacier in the world and one of the largest in the region. Its source is the Western Cwm of Mount Everest, and the glacier flows down the mountain’s southern flanks, from an elevation of around 7,000 metres down to 4,900 metres above sea level at its terminus (the “end”).

Though we know a lot about its surface, at present we know just about nothing about the inside of Khumbu. Nothing is known about the temperature of the ice deeper than around 20 metres beneath the surface, for example, nor about how the ice moves (“deforms”) at depth.

Khumbu is covered with a debris layer (which varies in thickness by up to four metres) that affects how the surface melts, and produces a complex topography hosting large ponds and steep ice cliffs. Satellite observations have helped us to understand the surface of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers like Khumbu, but the difficult terrain makes it very hard to investigate anything below that surface. Yet this is where the processes of glacier movement originate.

Satellite image of Khumbu glacier in September 2013. Image: NASA.

Scientists have done plenty of ice drilling in the past, notably into the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. However this is a very different kind of investigation. The glaciers of the Himalayas and Andes are physically distinctive, and supply water to millions of people. It is important to learn from Greenland and Antarctica, – where we are finding out how melting ice sheets will contribute to rising sea levels, for example – but there we are answering different questions that relate to things such as rapid ice motion and the disintegration of floating ice shelves. With the glaciers we are still working on obtaining fairly basic information which has the capacity to make substantial improvements to model accuracy, and our understanding of how these glaciers are being, and will be, affected by climate change.

Under pressure

So how does one break into a glacier? To drill a hole into rock you break it up mechanically. But because ice has a far lower melting point, it is possible to melt boreholes through it. To do this, we use hot, pressurised water.

Conveniently, there is a pre-existing assembly to supply hot water under pressure – in car washes. We’ve been using these for over two decades now to drill into ice, but our latest collaboration with manufacturer Kärcher – which we are now testing at Khumbu – involves a few minor alterations to enable sufficient hot water to be pressurised for drilling higher (up to 6,000 metres above sea level is envisioned) and possibly deeper than before. Indeed, we are very pleased to reveal that our recent fieldwork at Khumbu has resulted in a borehole being drilled to a depth of about 190 metres below the surface.

Drilling into the glacier. Image: author provided.

Even without installing experiments, just drilling the borehole tells us something about the glacier. For example, if the water jet progresses smoothly to its base then we know the ice is uniform and largely debris-free. If drilling is interrupted, then we have hit an obstacle – likely rocks being transported within the ice. In 2017, we hit a layer like this some 12 times at one particular location and eventually had to give up drilling at that site. Yet this spatially-extensive blockage usefully revealed that the site was carrying a thick layer of debris deep within the ice.

Once the hole has been opened up, we take a video image – using an optical televiewer adapted from oil industry use by Robertson Geologging – of its interior to investigate the glacier’s internal structure. We then install various probes that provide data for several months to years. These include ice temperature, internal deformation, water presence measurements, and ice-bed contact pressure.


All of this information is crucial to determine and model how these kinds of glaciers move and melt. Recent studies have found that the melt rate and water contribution of high-elevation glaciers are currently increasing, because atmospheric warming is even stronger in mountain regions. However, a threshold will be reached where there is too little glacial mass remaining, and the glacial contribution to rivers will decrease rapidly – possibly within the next few decades for a large number of glaciers. This is particularly significant in the Himalayas because meltwater from glaciers such as Khumbu contributes to rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provide water to billions of people in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Once we have all the temperature and tilt data, we will be able to tell how fast, and the processes by which, the glacier is moving. Then we can feed this information into state-of-the-art computer models of glacier behaviour to predict more accurately how these societally critical glaciers will respond as air temperatures continue to rise.

The ConversationThis is a big and difficult issue to address and it will take time. Even once drilled and imaged, our borehole experiments take several months to settle and run. However, we are confident that these data, when available, will change how the world sees its highest glacier.

Katie Miles, PhD Researcher, Aberystwyth University and Bryn Hubbard, Professor of Glaciology, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.