Rhodri Marsden: Postcodes? Pah! There's a wordy new way to describe exactly where you are
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 13 November 2013
In our pockets and bags we have smartphones with sufficient processing power to edit HD video and magically beam the results to a nearby television, but you still see people such as me wandering out of pubs, clamping said phone to our ear and shouting things like "Where are you? What do you mean, where am I? Nah, if you've gone past NatWest you've gone too far, you need to walk back and turn right at Londis."
Mobile technology is more than capable of helping us answer the question "Where are you?", but despite having unfettered access to richly detailed maps and GPS receivers, we prefer to have heated arguments over the position of temporary traffic lights and which way is north.
It's crazy. But the idea of digitally sharing our location information has become horribly tainted in our minds. As soon as smartphones were blessed with GPS, app builders became terribly over-excited and immediately started shoehorning it into a social media framework.
This gave us the unwelcome opportunity to broadcast our movements to various sets and subsets of friends and acquaintances, some of whom you probably didn't want to share that information with in the first place. Google Latitude and its competitors came equipped with complex privacy settings that were supposed to assuage our fears but succeeded only in exacerbating them.
Essentially, location sharing became about saying "I am here" without the question "Where are you?" ever having been posed in the first place. Many people tried these new-fangled services, winced, shuddered and backed away.
Telling one person precisely where you are, in theory such a simple and useful act, remained something of a faff – although there were exceptions. Glympse was (and is) a great app that lets you share your journey progress with specific people, thus avoiding umpteen "Where are you?" calls. Messaging service WhatsApp incorporated Google Maps' rather clunky location-sharing mechanism and simplified it to a three-click process.
Apple's much-maligned Maps also makes it preposterously easy. But they all rely on the other person owning certain apps or hardware – a problem deftly sidestepped by What3words. It's such a gloriously simple idea that it made me whistle appreciatively when I heard about it a couple of months ago: each 3m square of the globe is represented by three English words.
Forget lengthy GPS co-ordinates, nebulous postcodes or tedious directions: if you want to meet someone on the steps outside the offices of The Independent, just tell them candy.aspect.crib and they can use the What3words website or app to find you. The bandstand in nearby Kensington Gardens is leader.thus.deputy. The top of Uluru is long.bonkers.recessed. And a tree somewhere in the Amazonian forest in French Guiana is big.audio.dynamite.
Even taking into account our often blisteringly poor sense of direction, this is potentially very useful. Most of the planet has no postcodes or even meaningful addresses, and yet you can precisely answer the question "Where are you?" with three little words.
I've no idea whether What3words will be adopted by the big mapping companies, but I know one thing – it's easier to say "scream.survived.dainty" to a cab driver than "The car park adjoining Bob's Gun and Archery Shop near Sucker Brook Cove on the northern edge of Lake Chaubunagungamaug." It just is.
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