A Grid-Based Mapping App Is Preparing Us for a Future With No Roads
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, potent winds reached speeds of 175 miles per hour, ripping houses to shreds, uprooting trees, and downing power lines. A storm surge and flash flooding turned city streets into raging torrents of water running up to 30 inches deep.
But when the waters receded and the winds died down, the real scale of the devastation became clear. Roads were covered in a deep layer of mud and debris, and residents who’d lost their houses faced an insecure future. Worse yet, some couldn’t even find their way home. How could they when the roads had disappeared?
Gary Pitts, global security lead for the charity All Hands and Hearts, which rebuilds homes, schools, and community centers in the wake of disasters, has experienced firsthand how difficult it is to administer aid when catastrophe renders maps obsolete. On the lookout for a solution, he was introduced to a smartphone app called what3words in early 2017 by a group of humanitarian friends, which allowed his team to respond swiftly to the crisis in Puerto Rico after Maria hit.
“I have been in a number of situations, from finding day-to-day work sites through to medical emergencies, where pinpointing locations were vital but unclear,” he tells OneZero. “I found that trying to give a longitude and latitude over a satellite phone in a storm was nearly impossible.”
As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, it will become increasingly difficult for emergency services to find the correct location to provide help. Perhaps road signs will disappear, or local landmarks will become recognizable. Without a reliable way to communicate locations, teams can waste precious time searching for where they’re supposed to be rather than starting to rebuild.
What3words was created by CEO Chris Sheldrick, University of Cambridge mathematician Mohan Ganesalingam, and former quizmaster Jack Waley-Cohen to help prepare for a future in which our traditional means of communicating locations — like addresses and intersections — are no longer useful. Already, as with hikers lost on a trail or concertgoers spread out over a festival venue, it’s clear our existing methods are limited. That’s where what3words steps in.
Quite simply, when trying to communicate a location, we found that words work better than numbers.
Rather than rely on traditional maps, what3words breaks down the surface of the Earth into three-meter squares. The company’s proprietary algorithm then replaces the traditional GPS coordinates for each square with a unique three-word address. The result is easier, quicker, and more accurate to communicate a location than by using a traditional address or attempting to share 16-digit GPS codes. Typing the code ///replanted.migrated.viewer into the what3words app, for example, will take you to a specific patch of desert near Dalazadgad, Mongolia.
A number of safety mechanisms are built into the algorithm, such as assigning similar words to squares as far apart as possible in order to prevent confusion. Crucially, the algorithm works without an internet connection as long as GPS is activated on the mobile device running the app.
“Quite simply, when trying to communicate a location, we found that words work better than numbers,” what3words CMO, Giles Rhys-Jones, tells OneZero. The company’s business model uses a tiered system that makes it free to use for NGOs, charities, emergency services, and the public. But companies that embed the algorithm into their products, including car manufacturers, ride-hailing services, e-commerce, and emergency services, pay a fee.
Mercedes-Benz, Tata, and Daimler, for example, pay to integrate the what3words address system into a range of car models, which helps drivers input addresses in a more efficient way. Businesses that use e-commerce, like Domino’s, allow customers in some areas to enter three-word addresses to improve delivery times. And in the U.K., over 75 emergency services now encourage callers to provide a three-word address to shorten response time.
There are still kinks to work out: Critics have pointed out that what3words isn’t open source, which could have devastating consequences for users if the business folds or changes its subscription model. What3words is available in 40 languages, which means that the three-word addresses it assigns for each square also differ in every language. Also, its two-dimensional grid doesn’t account for vertical space, which means three-word addresses must sometimes be supplemented with a floor and apartment number.
Nevertheless, the app has been instrumental in the rescue efforts of All Hands and Hearts because it allows for greater accuracy and speed, which are crucial in a disaster zone or in areas that are underdeveloped. The charity has also used it successfully in Aransas Pass, Texas, as well as in Nepal and the British Virgin Islands, which have all been devastated by natural disasters in recent years. “Often, those vulnerable people are in locations which are not on the beaten path,” Pitts says.
“The biggest benefit is saving time,” he says. “Time we can now spend helping, not searching.”