What 3 Words? Jog on mate!

The OpenAddresses.io website notes that “Address data is essential infrastructure“. Geography underpins so much of the data we collect and is collected about us, making address registers important parts of national data infrastructure.

In the UK we’ve been wrestling with the fact that our address register is not open for many years. After the decision to sell the register as part of the privatisation Royal Mail money has been spent on exploring the creation of an open alternative. But it’s looking positive that we may end up getting a free, open version albeit at the cost of another £5m.

What3Words is a UK startup that also recognises the importance of address registers. Their website notes that: “Poor addressing costs businesses billions of dollars and hampers the growth and development of entire nations.

The company has developed an algorithm to assign unique 3 word identifiers to the entire world, creating a global addressing system. The website does a great job of explaining why improving addresses globally is important and highlights the benefits it can bring.

The problem is that What3Words is a proprietary, closed system. The algorithm is patented. The data is closed, with the terms and conditions spelling out in great detail all of the things you can’t do with the system, including:

  • You must not pre-fetch, cache, index, copy, re-utilise, extract or store any what3words Data
  • You may store What3words Data solely for the purpose of improving Your implementation of the API into Your Product provided that such storage: (i) is temporary (and in no event lasts for more than 30 calendar days), (ii) is limited to an amount of What3words Data which is strictly required to improve Your API implementation, (iii) is secure, and (iv) shall in no event enable You or a third party to use the what3words Data outside of Your Products, in any way, or to re-utilise or extract such data
  • For the avoidance of doubt, You must not use any what3words Data (whether accessed from the API or otherwise) for any purposes not expressly permitted under this Agreement, including for Your own use or for distribution, licence or sale to any third-party
  • ..etc, etc

These are all characteristics that help to make What3Words a good prospect for investment: all the defensive walls are in place to protect their intellectual property.

But these are also all characteristics that make What3Words completely unsuitable as either a global or national address register. So I was dismayed to read that Mongolia have decided to adopt it as their national register. I’m hoping that this isn’t really the case and that story is similar to the apocryphal tales of Honduras’s blockchain based land registry.

Clearly Mongolia is in need of a better data infrastructure and I can understand why a system like What3Words would be attractive. But I think the closed nature of the platform makes it a poor foundation for future growth. While the service might be great for parcel delivery, address and location information is used in so many other ways.

The licensing restrictions mean that its not possible to publish open data to help shed transparency on land ownership, report on crisis mapping, collect and process census or other statistics, and a myriad of other use cases. You can’t even store the data for your own re-use, other than on a temporary basis.

With this in mind I’d find it hard to recommend that any organisation collecting and sharing data should use What3Words. Otherwise the keys to your dataset are tied up with the intellectual property and API licensing of a third party. With terms that can be changed at any time. NGOs and other organisations hoping to publish open data about their activities should approach the service with a great deal of caution.

The fix for all this would be simple: What3Words could publish their data and algorithm under an open licence. I think that’s unlikely though.

Being an idealist I’d like to think that more data startups will start to recognise their role in contributing to a global commons and design products accordingly. And perhaps what we need is not more startup incubators, but institutions that will support the creation of data infrastructure that builds a more open future.

11 thoughts on “What 3 Words? Jog on mate!

  1. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post like this for some time. We left it to too late really. They got lots of investment and it seems they’re gaining a fair bit of traction from people who fail to look into the details. Details we should all be trained to look into by now. It’s 2016 ladies and gentlemen. Repeat after me… We do not adopt closed standards.

    what3words is an attempt to establish a simple “standard”, and this is important in describing our objection to it. Of course there are many money making tech companies who don’t give their intellectual property away for free, and that’s fine. This is not a freetarded “everything should be open source” argument. The issue with what3words is, you’re adopting a simple standard when you use it. You’re making it easier for other people to use it and harder for other people to not use it. And to repeat what really should be obvious to everybody these days… You should never adopt standards which are own and controlled completely by private company. what3words should have been shot down by every tech-savvy (or not-even-that-tech-savvy) person out there.

  2. It’s not only the license issue, but their claim is also bullshit.

    They claim that Mongolia doesn’t have the resources to use classic addresses. But then suddenly, they have resources to work with addresses that can only be used from electronic devices?

    Give me a single-page folded map of my country and either a textual address or two coordinates, and I’ll find the spot. Give me 3 words and I’ll have no idea where to look.

    The traditional addresses are also made for their simplicity. If you have a small village, just knowing the location of the village and the family you’re looking for is enough. (this may be the most difficult part, getting unique names for all villages in a certain administrative region, though it should still be easier than spreading smartphones with an internet connection to all families).

    If the village has multiple streets, check where the streets are going, and name them after their destination.

    If there aren’t villages but small towns to big cities, there should be enough people around to have an administrative service that can name the streets.

    And later on, you can even hand out housenumbers to individual houses. But as long as the streets aren’t too long, this isn’t even strictly needed, as you can just ask around who lives where.

    It’s how addresses have evolved in Europe for centuries, and they worked. And the more advanced the administration got, the better the localisation of addresses got. But there’s no progress to be achieved when starting to use w3w. You have 3×3 squares, and that’s it.

    1. I disagree. I think what3words is a good idea which they have executed well… except they didn’t do it in an open way, and if we criticise it on any of the other many axes of comparison we might choose, then we might reasonably be proved wrong as they manage to drive adoption. That all really muddies the overarching super-fundamental point: people should *not* adopt it because it is a closed standard.

      Mind you, there’s one aspect of their execution that lies on the intersection of both of our points. what3words involves database look-ups. I would argue that a better system would be purely algorithmic (better for various reasons) but of course the database look-up gives them an additional level of copyrightable lock-in which a pure algorithm wouldn’t have. …Clever

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