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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Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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