What3Words Hasn’t Had the Greatest Couple of Months: A Roundup

The proprietary geocoding system What3words, which assigns a three-word mapcode to each three-square-metre point on the planet, has been getting some grief lately. It’s always been somewhat controversial because it’s a closed system, and because of the steps What3words has taken to protect its proprietary database and algorithms: it’s issued takedown notices relating to the compatible, open-source WhatFreeWords (details here), to the point of threatening a security researcher over his tweets about it last April. Which, you know, got noticed.

It’s also been the subject of several parodies, including what3emojis (emojis instead of words), Four King Maps (four swear words, UK and Ireland only on account of a lack of swear words, which frankly disappoints me) and Maps Mania’s own April Fool’s joke for this year, what2figures, which expresses any point on the globe in just two numbers (I’ll wait).

But more recently it’s come under criticism for having similar sounding word combinations for addresses only a few miles apart: see Andrew Tierney’s blog post (which expands upon this Twitter thread) and What3words’s response. This is especially a problem for first responders trying to locate someone who may have misspoken or mistyped their location, or because of their accent, resulting in rescue teams being sent to the wrong location.

Null Island

zero-zeroZero degrees longitude, zero degrees latitude is literally nowhere: situated in the middle of the open ocean, off the coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, the only thing to mark its presence is a weather observation buoy [via]. But it’s also a significant set of coordinates, in that it’s the location you might get in the case of geocoding errors.

Hence the invention of Null Island, an imaginary place to flag geocoding failures. It shows up in version 1.3 of Natural Earth, for example, as an island one square metre in size, but coded so that it would never appear in an actual map. Gary Vicchi explains Null Island in more detail. As is the way of fictional places, Null Island has grown in the imagination: it has its own website, replete with sections on its history, geography, people and economy, and its own flag.