what3words
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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

How UK emergency services are using pinpoint location technology to save lives

A number of police forces and emergency services are using new location technology which divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, and identifies each square with a unique 3 words address, to help respond to incidents, stop attacks and potentially help to save lives.

So far the system has already been used to effectively locate a hostage who didn’t know where they were, respond to rural road accidents and find a lost child.

The technology, provided by British tech company what3words, enables police force call-handlers to send an SMS that contains a link to the what3words browser map site where they can see their location and read the corresponding 3 word address. Help is then dispatched to that precise location.

Sam Sheppard, command and control system manager at Avon and Somerset Police, one of the forces to have implemented the technology, says that what3words was first introduced at the force’s national STORM user group – which is where all police forces that use a specific command and control system to manage incidents – meet to discuss and agree areas of development for the system.

“Following the presentation, I could see the potential benefits of having what3words integrated within the system. This gives us another tool we could use in finding a location and the quicker we are able to locate an incident the sooner we can be on scene to help,” Sheppard told NS Tech.

The upgrade was managed by Sopra Steria, and according to Sheppard there is no other location technology that turns GPS coordinates into words and therefore it was a straightforward choice.

The technology, which has previously been used at festivals such as Glastonbury and for disaster relief around the world by the Red Cross and the UN, was turned on at Avon and Somerset Police as soon as the upgrade was completed.

“It was a soft launch to start, with an email to the department. I was then able to attend the communications training days and present how what3words is used and the benefits of using it. Since its introduction there have been around 100 incidents where what3words has been used to assist in finding a location,” Sheppard says.

“We’re trying to move away from questions like ‘what have you come from?’ and ‘what can you see?’ These questions take time and aren’t that accurate. If we can use the technology to speed up locating an incident, it has massive benefits and could potentially save lives,” he adds.

Avon and Somerset Police used the technology to help the driver of a vehicle carrying a mother and young child that was run off the road. It also used the technology when a member of the public came across a young child on a riverside path, and when a taxi driver was concerned about the safety of a male lying in an unlit road.

Other organisations using the technology include West Yorkshire Police, Humberside Police, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue and the British Transport Police.

In Humberside, a victim of sexual assault was held hostage not knowing where she was, and the police force used what3words to locate and recover her, and capture the offender.

Prior to using what3words, UK emergency services may have had to dispatch far more costly resources such as a helicopter fly-over or multiple units being allocated to search a rough area to locate an incident. It’s most effective for emergencies in rural locations such as farms, beaches, coastline or moorland where it can be complex, imprecise and difficult to communicate a location without any addresses or points of reference nearby. However, it can also help to decipher vague descriptions such as “near Wembley Stadium”.

The what3words app is free to download on iOS and Android or can be used on a browser, and also works offline, meaning that even those people who are struggling with a data connection are still able to send their location. It is available in 26 languages, and the format is consistent anywhere in the world.