It’s a well-known fact that British people love queueing – and millions of them are expected to try to tackle the boss level of queueing as Queen Elizabeth II lies in state in the Palace of Westminster in London today.
However, in the less than three hours that a government livestream of the queue for the London vigil has been online, the listed end of the lying in state line was wrong 40% of the time, thanks to the underlying location service, What3Words. The service directed mourners to locations as far afield as California and North Carolina. In a more plausible but still wrong instance, it told them to line up in a London suburb.
“There was an issue with the locations being shared using What3words because of a minor administration error. Within a few minutes of being notified we fixed the glitch and the system is now functioning correctly,” a statement from the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reads.
The Queen will be lying in state for mourners to pay their respects for the next several days – with those at the head of the queue lining up more than 48 hours before the doors to the Palace of Westminster officially opened.
More than 1,000 staff and volunteers will help monitor the line as it snakes across London, with would-be mourners warned they could expect to wait in line longer than 24 hours at its peak. But lines are an amorphous thing as they build, and to try and help people know where to join the back of the queue, the DCMS has launched a livestream on YouTube showing how long the line is, and where people should join.
There’s just one problem: the government used What3Words, a location service built by a London startup that splits up territory into three-by-three meter squares in order to allow more precise geolocation when compared to street addresses.
What3Words has come under criticism for the way that it refers to locations – using words that can sound similar to one another, while being thousands of miles apart. Mountain rescuers have said that staff had been given locations in Russia, Australia and Vietnam to try and help individuals who became stuck in UK mountain ranges. What3Words was approached for comment about the queue.
Take, for instance, the What3Words location clown.cars.central, near Highland Beach, FL. Get that slightly wrong - say, clown.card.central, and you’re suddenly in Bavaria, Germany. The service doesn’t work well with accents, homonyms or frankly, anyone wanting to write anything down from memory.
Lo and behold, the same issue has befallen the UK government. When the livestream launched at 2:55pm UK time, it directed mourners to the location same.valve.grid – in reality, Bob Belcher Park near Clovis, California. Around 15 minutes later, the stream was updated, directing people to same.value.grit, which was closer, in that it was in the London suburb of Denham, but still not right.
The UK government never got the location right before the end of the line moved, though social media observers believe that both initial errors were transliterations of what should have been the real location, same.valve.grit.
By 3:20pm local time, the government scored a success, correctly directing people to glove.tribal.danger, narrowly avoiding sending a pinpoint to Michigan or Ohio, which has similar-sounding locations. When the end of line moved again, they weren’t so lucky, sending people to a location 200 miles north of the UK capital in Yorkshire (keen.listed.fired: this time, they swapped out an “s” for an “f” in error).
For the next five updates, the queue system and What3Words location worked well – though the line flip-flopped from given.drips.herds to filed.moves.forum and back to given.drips.herds over the course of about an hour. Both are in the vicinity of the palace.
The fact that What3Words wasn’t working didn’t surprise 24-year-old researcher Tom Westgarth, who used it at the Boomtown music festival in the UK earlier this year. “The inconsistency of it was so frustrating,” he says. “One day it perfectly directed someone from one end of the site to our tents, the next day it was had told someone to go to the east coast of the States instead of our stage.”
“I think that was a typo,” says Westgarth, “but when someone is drunk at a rave, they may not notice that.”
The reason What3Words has found a foothold in the UK, being used by government departments, dates back to the 2013 privatization of the UK’s zip code address file. Businesses now need to pay to access official addresses of people they want to market to. “If you’ve ever struggled to find your property in an online service, you may be paying part of the price directly in the form of poorer services, undelivered kebabs, and lost taxis,” says Tom Forth, chief technology officer and co-founder of The Data City, a UK data company that has worked with the government in the past.
To fill the vacuum, private location service providers have cropped up. “Few are more visible than What3Words, a London-based startup that benefits from proximity to government, an easy to understand concept, and a slick product,” says Forth. However, the problems with What3Words are “well-documented”, he says.
“While the promotion of What3Words could be seen as a British government using a global event to promote a homegrown business it seems more likely that its own mistakes in using it have instead highlighted the flaws of the What3Words system.”
If you’re looking to line up to see the Queen, make sure you know where you’re ending up and where she’s lying in state: you need to be heading to string.rams.next on What3Words.