Don’t rely on the app … take your map!

By Marcus Humphrey, GIS & Neogeography Specialist, Bell Ingram Mapping Dept.

Marcus Humphrey, Bell Ingram.

You can’t have escaped the ongoing publicity surrounding a smartphone app called What3words.

The app, which divides the world in 57 trillion 3×3 metre squares and gives each a unique three-word code, was inspired by company founder Chris Sheldrick’s postal-related problems growing up in rural Hertfordshire.

It’s been hailed as a lifesaver by 35 English and Welsh emergency services who have signed up to the system which promises to save valuable time in rescue situations by pinpointing your exact location.

But is modern technology really a substitute for good, old-fashioned map reading skills? Or is the positive media hype surrounding W3w potentially putting lives at risk by failing to take into account the limitations of the average person’s smartphone?

W3w can only tell you where you are in real time if you have signal. Yet most smartphones only have a GPS accuracy of five metres in good signal and up to 20 metres in bad signal.

Astonishingly just 67% of the UK has complete 4G coverage from the four major networks, and 8% of the country has no coverage at all. And, more worryingly still, Scotland has the worst 4G signal in the UK with only 41% of rural areas able to access 4G (although the UK Government is looking to improve coverage to 95% by 2022).

All this goes to show that phone coverage needs to improve so that people don’t stumble into unnecessary danger by trying to find signal to give a three-letter word, when there are other options.

Phone GPS needs to improve to match the W3w technology, as W3w potential can only be properly realised by professional pieces of GPS equipment, which can now achieve up to 1cm accuracy.

Even the best map reader can get lost, but it does show that as a society we have lost the skill of map reading and remembering “along the corridor and up the stairs”.

You should always be prepared and not be purely relying on technology and remember that if you get lost that you should be looking to get help and try and find someone rather than trying to find signal.

Technology has taken away a skill that can be far more accurate than W3w and there is already OS Locate which can give you the grid reference as accurate as W3w would be on your phone.

W3w isn’t anything new and technology has got a long way to come to get up to a standard needed for W3w to be the front runner in the race for telling you where you are.

Published on 4th September 2019