By Brandon Gabler, PhD, RPA, Chief Operating Officer at Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.
By now, it’s likely you’ve seen their trademarked triple-forward-slash-then-three-words tagged on an advertisement, an email thread, a website, or somewhere. And at least the first time, you wondered what that was. I saw it on a can of craft brew and was immediately curious. Straight to the web!
The quick summary? What3words (///what3words, what3words.com) is the product of a team who draped a 3-by-3-m grid over the entire earth and assigned a random and unique string of three words to every square, so that every single 3-m2 spot on earth has its own unique geocode—less precise than GPS coordinates, but tied strictly to a location, like an entrance to a building, or the bathroom inside a building where someone has an emergency, and may not have GPS reception to provide the exact lat/long coordinates but someone can find where that place is on what3words and share with first responders, so they know which entrance or which restroom someone is in. It’s also generally easier to tell someone three words than to try to find, copy, paste, or dictate a string of latitude and longitude coordinates.
This is great for the emergency response world, but what does it do for us cultural resource folks? Or how about the planners at engineering firms and township or county offices, whom we’re trying to help?
My first thought, after finding out what those three words on my beer meant, was that our architectural historians most commonly conduct survey by address or parcel number, which are tied to specific locations, too, but are often wrong in some way: multiple buildings occupy the same parcel, assessor data aren’t available online or don’t match USPS address coding, online streetview or aerial imagery is mismatched or don’t even contain the addresses/parcel numbers, and so on. Parks, rural areas, and landscapes (with entrances or specific features of interest scattered throughout) don’t have addresses or their own parcel numbers for smaller features at all.
But a system like ///what3words could certainly help researchers pinpoint a historic property on a large multi-property lot and communicate the exact building (or even features of a building, using different 3-m squares) to the planners and others who are trying to avoid, rehabilitate, or just appreciate a historic building. It works on waterways, lakes, ponds—need a crew to find a pier to get out of a storm quickly and let a safety coordinator know where they’ll be? Solution: ///what3words. Of course, we also often end up meeting field staff, clients, and stakeholders in the field to view properties or review potential archaeological information—instead of trying to explain where to park 100 m down a winding and unmapped dirt road, just text someone the ///what3words location of the square to meet.
It’s also a fun way to reference your own office! Commonwealth’s headquarters is ///cheers.town.scarecrow (perfect for the Halloween season!). We’re in a building that shares a front porch with our upstairs tenant, and our whole building uses a single mailing address, but the ///cheers.town.scarecrow locator is the exact square for Commonwealth’s front entrance, and would keep someone away from our tenant’s door. Or for those working in multi-unit office buildings, how about providing the ///what3words location as the square your reception or office desk occupies as a stylish and new way of sharing where you’re working?
Maybe the pitfalls are no different than any other means of geolocation (accuracy of your device’s GPS, need for pre-planning to be sure of where you are and where you’re going, and so on), but I think it provides an intriguing method and the potential for really fun addresses! Why drive to 3215 Central Street in Dexter, MI when you can just stroll on over to ///cheers.town.scarecrow!?