A Grid-Based Mapping App Is Preparing Us for a Future With No Roads

Where what3words is going, you don’t need addresses

Emma Stenhouse


Instead of using traditional addresses, what3words overlays a three-meter by three-meter grid on a map, assigning each square a unique three-word address. Image: what3words

WWhen 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…