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October 22nd, 2021
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what3words App Useful for Describing Location, but Search and Rescue in BC Has a Better Tool

A new smartphone app, called what3words, is making it easier for smartphone users to share their location and describe other locations as well.

However, the British Columbia search and rescue groups are not advocating its use for emergencies and rescue scenarios.

To explain, here’s how the what3words app works.

The app developers have divided the entire surface of planet Earth into a giant grid of three meter squares, and assigned each square a unique combination of three common words to describe the precise location of that particular square. This is called the what3words address.

For example, the location of Mountain Sledder magazine offices on 9th St N in Golden, BC, Canada can be found at ///journey.sandpaper.condiments

what3words Mountain Sledder

The what3words app can be used to show the three word location of the app user, or to find the three word location for any other place on Earth. 

The premise is a simplification of the process of communicating a precise location to other users by making use of the global positioning capabilities of a smartphone and translating the exact location into a simple combination of words that is easy to remember and relay to others.

what3words Not Recommended by BC Search and Rescue

However, Search and Rescue (SAR) groups in British Columbia do not support the use of what3words for location finding in rescue scenarios.

The reason is that SAR groups in BC already have a geolocation software technology in place that has been proven to be simple to use and effective, with less chance of error. The system does not require any vocalization or manual inputting of location information, and it allows for the accurate location finding of a subject without the reliance on a third-party app or proprietary coordinate system.

Here’s How the BC SAR Geolocation Software Works

When the SAR group is tasked by RCMP with a 911 call for help, it will implement the software which generates a link to a web page with a unique ID. The link is then send by text to the subject.

All the subject is required to do is click the link to open the web page. The web page harvests the exact GPS coordinates from the subject’s phone and sends them back to the requesting SAR team, where they are automatically inputted into the SAR geolocation system without any manual entry required.

The subject—likely under stress—isn’t required to: a) either download or already have a specific app installed, b) know how to find their GPS coordinates on the phone (or be explained how), or c) communicate any words over the phone.

On the receiving end, the SAR group doesn’t have to copy any words out and have them converted, then manually enter coordinates into the GIS systems.

Another benefit of the SAR system is that it will also report the “error” in the subject’s position (this uncertainty is a limitation of all GPS reporting, and is usually 10s of meters according to the SAR tool developer). This can be useful information in the deployment of resources in certain circumstances, such as when the subject is on a riverbank and the team must know on which side of the river to deploy.

Increased Chance of Error Using what3words Address

Meanwhile, the chance of error in relaying location information is increased by using a what3words address instead of the system developed for BC SAR.

First, while the what3words developer has made efforts to avoid words of similar spelling and those that sound similar in nearby areas, it is quite possible that a user might make a mistake such as dropping an ‘s’ from the end of a word.

In fact, in the process of copying the what3words address of our work offices for this story, we made this very mistake. Instead of using ///journey.sandpaper.condiments as our address, we accidentally pasted ///journey.sandpaper.condiment, which is not the location of our offices, but the description for a remote location near Tok, Alaska—some 3000 km by highway from our intended location description. We didn’t catch this error until later.

In the example of our case, while it would likely be clear at first glace by BC SAR that the reported location (in another country) is incorrect, it would require additional communication to resolve, which would cost valuable time in an emergency.

To counter this possibility, what3words representatives point to the app’s auto suggest feature, which they say actively intercepts possible errors and highlights them to the user to prompt additional checks before making any selection.

In addition to the possibility of honest mistakes, social media users have probably noticed that poor spelling is tragically rampant these days.

There is also the issue of similar sounding words that might be mistaken when dictated over the phone, especially from a user in a remote area where mobile service can be patchy.

what3words Not a Communication Tool

In support of the app, the developers are quick to point out that the app is not intended to be used in place of carrying the right gear, proper trip planning and preparation for backcountry recreation.

However, it also must be made clear that the app does not provide any means to communicate with rescue services. The point of the app is to simplify location information—it is not a communication tool.

While the what3words address generation does function offline, a personal locator device or satellite communications device would still be required to contact emergency help for users outside of mobile phone coverage. Personal locator beacons (PLBs) with an S.O.S. function use an entirely different system that sends GPS location information directly to the responding agency.

The developers report that what3words addresses are accepted and used by 42 emergency communication centers across Canada, with a presence in the following eight provinces and two territories:

  • Alberta
  • British Colombia
  • Manitoba
  • New Brunswick
  • Nova Scotia
  • Ontario
  • Northwest Territories
  • Saskatchewan
  • Quebec
  • Yukon
We support the Search & Rescue community and their calls to ensure people are prepared when venturing out. what3words is not a replacement for having the right equipment, traditional map reading skills or calling 9-1-1 but is a useful tool in the toolbox to help communicate a location. Services across Canada along with hundreds of services around the world are using what3words on a daily basis to improve response times and save lives.
Chris Sheldrick, what3words CEO

Warnings by BC SAR groups came to light around the time it was reported that North Vancouver RCMP was the first RCMP service in Canada to implement use of the app last year.

The app developer says that fifty percent of emergency services surveyed by what3words have said that they regularly receive calls from hard-to-describe locations such as hiking trails, lakes, campsites and remote rural areas. All services surveyed noted that remote landscapes and a lack of landmarks often make it difficult to locate callers (in places where emergency services do not have a system in place similar to that of BC SAR).

In the UK, where the app was developed, what3words is now used by over 85 percent of emergency services, including police, fire and ambulance.

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Recreational and Commerical Uses for what3words

So while use of what3words is not recommended by BC SAR groups for emergency situations in British Columbia, it may serve as a useful tool in parts of the world where Search and Rescue organizations are either non-existent or they don’t have the resources available to BC SAR teams.

Beyond that, what3words certainly appears to have usefulness for simple but precise location descriptions in non-emergency situations. The app serves as an easy way to describe places without addresses or obvious landmarks, and without the necessity of long-winded descriptions. For example, what3words can be used to share precise meeting places in parks, a specific trailhead location or to help friends find each other at a crowded event. Tracking down your buddy at Hay Days has never been easier!

It is also today being used by businesses to share locations of delivery access doors, back entrances and other hard to describe locations, and the developer says it can be inputted into ride-hailing apps and e-commerce checkouts.

what3words is available in 50 languages, including Canadian French, and is in use by millions of people, worldwide. The system does not store or track users’ location data, and there are no advertisements on the app or map. The app is free, and what3words can also be used online at what3words.com

 

– MS

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