A Grid-Based Mapping App Is Preparing Us for a Future With No Roads
Where what3words is going, you don’t need addresses
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…