The Wiki Man

The best navigation idea I’ve seen since the Tube map

Meet the British company that can take you around the world in three common words

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

I stopped using London buses when some coward put doors on them. Twenty years ago, you could board any bus headed in the right direction and when it diverged from your intended route you’d jump off and board another. You didn’t need to understand bus routes at all.

Now, when bus doors open only at specified stops, an absurd level of research is needed. It takes five minutes to work out where to wait and which route to take. Worse, buses use the dippy Paris Métro approach (Diréction Porte de Clignancourt) where only the final destination is on the front. This demands unrealistic knowledge of the outer suburbs. Where the hell is Clapton Pond? North? East? From the sound of it, the only reason I might go there is to dispose of a corpse (a task for which public transport is useless anyway: you need a white van or, for a real sense of occasion, a Mark 2 Jaguar).

Unlike the Tube, London’s bus network has never offered what psychologists call ‘cognitive fluency’. The glory of the Underground is the schematic map designed by Harry Beck; this uses names and colours for different lines (better than numbers) and can be translated into decisive action instantly; the economic value created by this map must run into billions.

Yet because cognitive fluency is intangible, its value is often under-rated. For instance, consider the effect of rebranding the London Overground as part of the Tube network. Much of the route existed for decades as the Silverlink train line. But since it did not appear on the Tube map, it was mentally invisible and so unused; ten years ago you felt a bit like Spencer Tracy stepping off the train in Bad Day at Black Rock. Now, as an orange route on the Tube map, it is insanely popular. The rebranding of the line may have contributed more than the new trains.

Last week I heard of another British idea which may be as important as Harry Beck’s in making navigation mentally easy: divides the entire surface of the earth into 3m x 3m squares and identifies each with just three common words. So the middle of the Spectator garden is — while the front door is take.notes.thus. There are about 60 trillion such combinations available.

If you want to host a picnic on Dartmoor, you can phone or text a pinpoint location to a friend with just three words (there are no homophones, to avoid ambiguity) and guests can use the phone app to find a picnic site at, say, revives.paused.flop. Travel journalists can now provide perfect directions to that hard-to-find beach in Tasmania. Parcel delivery firms can find your letterbox. And the residents of Surrey can arrange to meet after dark in an abandoned lay-by south of Oxshott (sorry for letting my Kent prejudice show for a moment there).

Numerical GPS coordinates are useless in print, impossible to use in speech and completely unmemorable — and one mistyped digit may cause you to invite people to a birthday party 200 miles north of Irkutsk. What this system provides is a mentally salient, super-accurate postcode system for the whole world, oceans included. It is useful in Britain, but in countries which have no established address system it will save lives.

You can also buy (for £1.49 a year) a single-word designation for your own home or office, starting with a star: *spectator, for instance. Or you could move house to a memorably named location. A friend of mine, using the same talent which gained him a first in mathematics at Cambridge, has already established that warm.front.bottom lies halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    I learn a lot from the Wikiman..I have a five socket usb charger that is a boon when I am travelling thanks to him and W3W is brilliant, as young people say….

  • Roger Hudson

    Don’t knock Clapton Pond, a very useful destination, well connected. Too public to dump a body, though in prime ‘Firm’ territory.

  • Alan Burkitt-Gray

    So I live at weep.tend.scores and work at volume.dock.shells. Magic. Perhaps.

    • rorysutherland

      Why is your little patch of London not on Google Street View? Intrigued!

      • Alan Burkitt-Gray

        Because it’s a private estate and Google Street View doesn’t — at least didn’t — do private property. Bing supposedly does but it appears to be down at the moment.

        • rorysutherland


          • Giles Rhys Jones

            you should check out they are crowdsourced street view for the places that are not covered by others. download the app and get snapping.

  • James Jones

    That is genius.

    The trouble is of course getting to a critical mass of users. My understanding is that very few car satnav systems allow the input of either National Grid or Lat/Long coordinates. (I don’t have one but prepared some coordinates for someone else then found the snag.) How long before they accept this new system?

    The shortest GPS coordinates that adequately specified the address I cared about looked like:

    52.721, -0.154

    which google maps accepts but satnavs generally don’t.

    • rorysutherland

      One of the great things that could result if Satnavs learned to accept this format would be that you could issue directions by voice.

      Postcodes in the UK are usually good, but there are astonishing pitfalls in the countryside where one postcode area can lie on both sides of a river, say.

      • James Jones

        “pitfalls in the countryside”

        Indeed, a delivery ran into trouble when the postcode centre was about 600 yards from the actual location. No house numbers and uncertain mobile phone signal too. Neither the acceptor (me) nor the delivery people were familiar with the area.

        • Chris Morriss

          Use a proper application that keeps the maps on the phone/tablet and only uses the GSM network for traffic updates.

    • post_x_it

      Really? I have a 10-year-old TomTom (one of the cheaper models at the time) and it accepts Lat/Long instructions. I thought all the major brands did.

      • Chris Morriss

        Few do, but lat/long is a pain. In the UK, OS map references are far more useful, and understood by the majority of intelligent people.

    • Chris Morriss

      That’s because car satnavs are for people who blindly follow the navigation instructions with no knowledge of where they are going, or passing through.
      Much better would be to combine a proper map satnav application, such as Viewranger or MemoryMap which can understand map references, with a car navigation program. Not that such combined apps exist as far as I know.

      • Brimstone52

        Look at the smartphone app Co-Pilot. It accepts a variety of location co-ordinates.

    • Darnell Jackson

      I know of someone who has the Lat/Long coordinates displayed by his pool, just in case the air ambulance should be required.

  • You mean a URL for GPS? TNSTAFL. WTC? Quid pro quo? Alea jacta est.

  • Also, like Thomas Huxley said when he read Alfred Wallace’s paper “How stupid not to have thought of that.” And can I reserve “Wilderness.of.monkeys” for my postal zone?

  • Tom

    I think the thinking behind this is genius, and the approach admirable, it’s sort of URL shortening for the real world, but I fear it’s like Coin ( ) innovation within a dying paradigm.

    It’s based on a behavior of finding a location, turning it into a much better code, sharing that code, then someone turning the code back into a location, apps required on both ends.

    What Viber and many other sites, Google Maps included, is allow you to send that location instantly via a pin, with no need for coding and recoding, so soon this step will be removed entirely. Much like Twitter removed App shorteners, Apple pay removed coin, Streaming removed mini-discs, it’s an good solution to a problem that already has a better solution.

    • Giles Rhys Jones

      you are right, for much of the developed world but even then the geocoders that take what you type into a search bar and approximate a place on map are imprecise. add in the ability to communicate a location outside of digital channels, the ability to read, write & say it and we offer a solution. then think about developing nations who don’t have the infrastructure you mention and we can significantly improve lives. full disclosure: i work for what3words.

      • Swanky

        You mean what3words and whyusecaps

  • Stu

    Clapton pond is near Baker lake, overlooked by Bruce Villas. It’s the cream of the suburbs.

    • Chris Morriss

      I guess you’d need Wheels of Fire to get to all those places though.

  • Rotherham_Solutions

    I is a homophone.

    • Terry Collmann

      Is you?

      • rorysutherland

        I and eye and aye are all homophones.

        • Rotherham_Solutions

          Full marks Rory. And according to Wikipedia, U is semitic. Learning can be fun, if a little open to misinterpretation!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    entire surface of the earth into 3m x 3m squares
    200 miles north of Irkutsk

    Mishmash UK

  • SeekTruthFromFacts

    I know this isn’t the main point of the article, but if you can manage to comment on the Spectator blog then London buses should hold no fear for you:
    I’m so antiquated I don’t even use a smartphone but manage to use the bus network pretty much every week.

  • hostile_17

    I’ve never heard buses sound so complicated. And bus stops are normally close together… I have visions of you trapped, screaming out the window stuck on a bus for 20 minutes until it lets you off.

  • songday

    So this only works for English speaking people then….
    And the words don’t (perhaps deliberately) follow any pattern – so no way to see if FILED.TESTS.BID is near CATTLE.SPEND.WEEDY or miles from it…

    • Chris

      The system is in 8 languages and growing. On the language menu try selecting Spanish or Russian for example. It’s also intentional that CATTLE.SPEND.WEEDY is a long way from CATTLE.SPENDS.WEEDY – that way you can see from the word go if you’ve made an error, rather than getting frustratingly close and realising that there has been an error.

  • Interesting technology, but those words don’t really help to associate the location… Landmarks would be nice here as they are more intuitive to people. Not too sure how this could improve TFL.

  • Guest