Winding through London, the queue to see Queen Elizabeth II lying in the state on Thursday ran 4.4 miles, from Westminster to Tower Bridge and beyond.
However, those who tried to join the bottom of the line could have been forgiven for thinking it started 5,300 miles away in Fresno, California.
The reason for the confusion was the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s choice to use a UK app to help mourners find the end of the queue.
The app, called What3words, uses a combination of three words to locate a grid address anywhere in the world. Its map is divided into 57 trillion three-meter squares, each with a unique identifier made up of three words.
For example, the coffin of the late queen lies in the center of Westminster Hall on a bier. The center of Westminster Hall, according to What3words, is called hurls.elbows.jumped.
But the problems arose further down the queue. The first location posted by DCMS officials on their YouTube livestream of the line was supposed to be same.valve.grit, a spot near Blackfriars Bridge.
Unfortunately, the address they actually posted is same.valve.grid, more than 5,300 miles away near Yosemite in California.
The mistake is easily escaped. Civil servants appear to have typed “grid” instead of “grain,” potentially after hearing the word wrong.
The errors continued. Another location, sharp.lifted.fired, was listed on the official queue map as sharp.listed.fired, suggesting it started near Leeds, Yorkshire.
A third reference to shops.view.paths was to show the line starting near the Tate Modern. Instead, the publicly disclosed location was shops.views.paths – adding an “s” – which was a spot near the city of Charlotte in North Carolina.
The app’s astronomical word combinations make it a handy alternative to using the traditional Ordnance Survey grid references. These use a combination of lettered grid squares and a six-digit numeric grid reference to find an exact location on a traditional map. Another alternative, longitude and latitude references, uses a complex string of two numbers to find a position relative to the equator.
The logic of using What3words, then, is that the app can provide a more intuitive location for a place without the need for a mailing address. The company describes itself as “the easiest way to talk about position”.
Its website says: “Street addresses are not precise enough to specify precise locations, such as building entrances, and they do not exist for parks and many rural areas.
“This makes it difficult to find places and prevents people from describing exactly where help is needed in an emergency.”
The app was born from an idea of Chris Sheldrick, 41, who founded What3words in 2013 with Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Michael Dent.
The inspiration came from Sheldrick’s decade working as an event planner in the music industry.
“Every day we went somewhere else, whether it was Gate B42 at Wembley Stadium or the back entrance to a villa on a mountain in Italy,” Sheldrick told The Telegraph in 2019, “addresses rarely indicated the actual location. you wanted “.
Vans, musicians and equipment got lost or stopped regularly in search of the right entrance or backstage loading areas. So Sheldrick started working on an idea to solve it.
Many people bought the company set up to market that idea. In the UK, 100 branches of emergency services have started using What3words to help locate people in need.
The company raised over £ 80 million from a handful of blue chip investors. Supporters include Daimler, manufacturer of Mercedes Benz, Intel, Channel 4, ITV, Ikea and former Formula 1 driver Nico Rosberg. Its recent funding rounds suggest a valuation of around £ 170 million, according to documents from Companies House. He made £ 459,000 in the 12 months ending December and posted a loss of £ 16 million, according to his latest accounts.
But not everyone agrees that Sheldrick’s idea represents a better form of mapping.
Last year, mountain rescuers said they encountered problems locating people using the app. “We are finding that there are a lot of spelling problems, which could arise from when positions are being provided to the emergency services,” Mark Lewis, head of ICT at Mountain Rescue England and Wales told the BBC.
Andrew Tierney, a cybersecurity consultant who has looked closely at What3words technology, thinks there are too many homophones – similar-sounding words – in the list of terms the mapping site uses to mark unique locations on the Earth’s surface.
“Of these 40,000 words, there are 7,697 that also exist in a plural form,” he says. “So that’s 15,924 in total where you can just add or remove an S, which is quite a lot.”
Concerned about the use of What3words by emergency services in light of this potential source of confusion, Tierney analyzed the operation (and wording) of the site last summer. His most troubling discovery concerned two locations with very similar sounding references to What3words that were, in fact, on opposite banks of the River Clyde: probable.phase.sock and probable.phasis.sock.
“The biggest concern really is that they said they designed this problem where making a mistake would take you to the other side of the world,” Tierney added. “But it turns out they didn’t. In fact, it is almost inherent that you will find [location] couples who are very close to each other “.
The company admitted last year that its technology “rightfully receives public scrutiny due to its use by emergency services,” but defended its efforts to mitigate potential confusion.
He says What3words uses a concept he calls “shuffling” to pick out hard-to-write words far offshore. He also tries to remove obvious homophones to avoid confusion.
A spokesperson for What3words said, “We know that people make mistakes sometimes. What3words’ autosuggestion system detects misspellings, typing, pronunciation, misinterpretation and incorrect memory. The positions of three similar-sounding words are typically far away. The possibility of potentially confusing combinations appearing ambiguously close to each other in the UK is estimated to be around 1 in 25 million. “
However, What3words continued to be used by emergency services, governments and car manufacturers at a rapid pace. About 85% of blue light services use the app and have encouraged the public to download it.
Gill Pleming, a service manager at the Welsh Ambulance Service, says what3words has saved rescuers “the time that matters most.” He says his call managers have been trained to use the service to avoid any human error when transmitting words.
After the initial hiccup, the What3words positions for the queue to see the deceased queen lying in the state were largely correct. DCMS officials were said to have realized that the errors were due to manual input of words by civil servants. They then moved on to a new method where the location codes were filled in automatically.
But those planning to pay their respects to the late queen this weekend may want to double-check their spelling before they leave.