Review how emergency services handle location data from the public.

I found an interesting web site which does rather highlight some of the issues with what 3 words, w3w.me.ss. Well worth a look.

Sign the petition!

Whilst it is a fun application, a novelty, I personally do not feel it has any place being promoted by emergency services. And this post is my honestly held personal opinion, as always.

If they want to "handle" w3w addresses from the public, that may make some sense, as it is popular. If the app if given to them free of charge (as seems to be the case), and if they take any w3w address with some caution, checking the location by other means if possible, then yes, fine.

But reports on social media (including from people I personally know) suggest that w3w is not just "promoted" by emergency services but actively preferred to the extent that call handles will refuse to take simple o/s grid references and insist on a w3w address. For one recent case, the police force in question confirmed that they should have taken an o/s grid reference. But in practice this seems not to be the case.

What seems worse is stories of people being talked through downloading the app on an emergency call. This is quite incomprehensible. Even if you want a w3w address for some reason, it is far quicker to send someone to the w3w web page (what3words.com) which shows your location. The only possible reason to download the app is so the user has the app on their phone. It is a purely marketing activity, as someone is more likely to use w3w if they have the app. Do we really want emergency services actively engaged in time consuming marketing activity for third party closed commercial apps, during an emergency call?

As I say, much of this is anecdotal, but social media is full of this, as highlighted by w3w.me.ss.

What is especially odd is that w3w's own terms and conditions are not consistent with use in an emergency. They expect you to read, understand, and agree many thousands of words before use, and expect you to check the terms before every use. This is not sensible for the caller, and the emergency call handling staff, to do in an emergency situation where time is critical. Also, the terms prohibit use where it could lead to someone dying, which is often the case in an emergency. Given these clear terms, it makes no sense emergency services would even be considering w3w usage, let alone promoting it. It is almost as if they did no checks at all on how it works or even just reading the terms.

There are ways to get location from callers, not just (long standing, open standard) alternatives like o/s grid references or even simple latitude/longitude, but means that don't involve any reading out, like SARLOC or AML. These should be available to emergency services. Even if there is need for a caller to give a different location, knowing where the caller is puts that in context and helps eliminate errors, whatever format is used.

So, in order to try and address this, I have made a petition. It calls for "Review how emergency services handle location data from the public." which I think is fair.

Sign here! And do share the link to get some traction, if you agree this needs reviewing. Of course, if you feel strongly enough, it is also worth contacting your MP over this.


  1. I think a major flaw of the W3W approach is language. If either end of a call does not normally converse in English, that is a problem, especially since the words used for locations appear to be typically outside normal use vocabulary. Also, I have lost count of the number of times someone on the other end of a phone call gets my name and surname wrong. Even when I spell them! Huge chance for misunderstanding going unnoticed until the ambulance arrives in a deserted field.

    1. Also: different language versions of What three words have different word lists, so if I were to, hypothetically have the Dutch version of the app and pass my location as "vingertop verplaatsen scoorde" then for some reason, the operator can't transcribe from spoken Dutch so I helpfully translate this into English and say "fingertip move scored" then it's somewhere entirely different.

  2. I've heard of the What 3 Words system but have never used it. I'm not the sort of person who carries round a computer with internet access, so I hope this will not preclude me from getting an emergency ambulance. Having said that, I don't carry OS maps around with me either, but I do at least know how to read one!

  3. Nearly all mobile calls to 999 have location provided to emergency service control rooms. However, not all of the services have the ability to consume the data.

    IMHO it would be better to fix that, so that callers would never need to know how to use an app/browser.

    1. Callers should never be required to say their own position unless it is some distance from the emergency. If the control room wants to translate the coordinates they have into OS, W3W or Ancient to pass that down the line really shouldn't be the concern of the callers at all.

      It feels like a marketing exercise.

  4. Or they could just use PlusCodes, which are an open standard, usable entirely offline, and already built in to the Google Maps app which almost everybody with a smartphone already has.

  5. It's not just emergency services which are hopeless about this. Last year I was driving in a remote part of Scotland and had the misfortune to be scraped against a car coming the other way on a narrow bridge. I had to report the location to my insurance company in case of a claim (fortunately the other motorist took all the blame and paid up). I phoned my insurer's claim line and gave the longitude and latitude of the encounter - the insurance system could not handle that. I gave the OS grid reference - the phone clerk had not even hear of the Ordnance Survey let along the national grid reference. In the end I had to settle for something like "about a mile south of on the road to . I was amazed that a large insurance company would have an accident reporting line where the assistants were so ignorant.

  6. It is a very useful tool for emergency services to use. It is fairly quick, it defines the location narrowly which is especially useful if in a rural location or an area like a trading estate where signposts are few and far between. Is it perfect, certainly not. But it is easy to use even for the uninitiated. A friend used it recently on a busy campsite, the ambulance crew had said the minutes saved using the app, may well have saved the patients life.

    1. It very much is not suitable in any way for emergency services use. See https://www.me.ss
      (a) Minutes count but W3W terms require you to read and understand all the terms before use, and re-check them before every use. Wasting valuable hours.
      (b) There are a lot of examples where emergency services have directed people to actually download the W3W app, wasting valuable minutes, which is crazy. There are many sites that show your grid ref without downloading an app such as https://whereami.uk and https://find.me.uk
      (c) They should be using AML to get location immediately without a word needing to be spoken, and no chance of mis reading or mis hearing words or numbers.


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