The Address Is Dead: Say Hello To “What 3 Words”

Vital. Groups. Knee. That’s the three-word address of Dallas City Hall – no number, no street, no zip code.

It’s how you would find 1500 Marilla using What 3 Words. The company has covered the world in a 3-meter square grid (10 feet) and assigned each one a unique three-word code. What appears to be a party game at first glance is a lot more (click here to explore your address).

The operation was founded in 2013 because addresses were imprecise for deliveries – which loading dock, which section of the park, etc.? Beyond that, over 75 percent of the globe has poor or non-existent addresses – and then there’s the oceans and seas.

Precision of location is the name of the game and investors have taken note with millions invested in the technology. For consumers and real estate agents, there are great uses for the free app available for both Android and Apple users. First is the location pinpointing. If you’re in a rural area, the accuracy is unlike what you’re used to. Using What 3 Words for selling property with considerable acreage definitely makes meeting a buyer or Realtor on-property a snap (no more arm waving, horn honking, and light flashing). The location is within a 10-foot-by-10-foot square.

You can also tag photos with What 3 Word addresses so not only can a buyer find the property, but they know precisely where the agent snapped pictures. For the digital egotist, you can add the What 3 Word designation to photos of your lunch or the sunset you just enjoyed. The apps also support speech recognition so you can tell it to remember or find a precise location without typing.

Background and Explanation

Turns out the Earth has 57 trillion of those 3-meter squares, but given the different combinations, it took just 40,000 English words to generate those 57 trillion individual three-word addresses. For the 26 other languages supported, it only takes 25,000 words (non-English versions only map dry land). The algorithm also assigns easier-to-remember words to more densely populated areas (e.g. a random point in the Pacific Ocean is Marauding, Substantiates, Collating).

One of the company’s first customers was the United Nations, which uses the system to pinpoint aid packages and personnel in disaster areas where, if there were roads, they might be washed away. You may be thinking that GIS/GPS data is the ticket, but who remembers their GPS coordinates?  No one. But people can remember three words – heck, we used to remember 10-digit phone numbers before cell phones rendered memory passé.

The table above shows how complexity effects the memory of digits, letters, and words. Essentially, at four and below, it’s near 100 percent but quickly drops off. While word memory drops off quickest, it’s able to transfer more information than individual letters or digits – think about whether there’s more inherent information in 7, P, or Picnic. Then remember that Dallas City Hall’s GPS address is 32.7762715,-96.7969417. Isn’t “Vital, Groups, Knee” easier to remember?

The ability of humans to remember numbers of three and four digits was employed by Bell Labs. It’s the reason why phone numbers are grouped into three-digit area codes, three-digit central office prefixes, and four-digit station numbers. It’s why most credit cards use cadences of three and four digits for the account number and security code (the exception being American Express).

Returning to City Hall, 1500 Marilla Street is the address of the whole building, whereas What 3 Words breaks down the building’s footprint into 10-foot squares. Instead of telling someone you’re at “1500 Marilla Street, in the back parking lot near Browders Street” all you have to do is say Vital, Bells, Reduce and you’re at the specific parking space. No waving of arms or “last-mile” calls, “I’m on the east end … two rows from the back … about five spaces from the end … I’m wearing a blue shirt … can you see me, I’m waving my arms.”

I get it, you think this is interesting but silly. Here’s the thing. All manner of delivery services use the technology (including Dominos Pizza), as does the Red Cross and United Nations. Regular festivals like UK’s Glastonbury and Farnborough Airshow use it. Range Rover uses What 3 Words for off-road mapping and just last May, the Mercedes-Benz A-class became the first vehicle to embed the technology in their infotainment system (and owns 10 percent of the business).

For now, you’re unlikely to use What 3 Words every day. However, if you’re looking for something (or someone) in the boonies or in a vast area (tailgate party, campground, or concert hall) this’ll get you there without having to wave your arms around like a demented windmill. If you’re a real estate developer targeting a certain demographic, a “vanity” What 3 Word address may give you some street cred (more than a QR code). In addition, uniquely identifying every lot and home in the development tied back to specific marketing materials and floorplans makes the project “stickier” in the minds of digital shoppers.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs, and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

2 Comment

  • Does UBER use this yet? I work in a big office building complex and it would cut the pickup time by 5-10 minutes and save frustration for me and the driver.