#What3Words – Hype or Substance?

Lost?Today I wanted to offer some observations about an ‘off topic’ subject that got me thinking… “Why?”

In one of those rare moments, when my head isn’t full of work stuff, philosophical conundrums or just thinking about the daily grind of life, my thoughts turned to the rising popularity of the smartphone, as a navigation tool. But in particular, I’m thinking about the What3Words app… “the simplest way to talk about location. Apparently it works by dividing the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3 word address. Again, why?

In this age of smartphone technology, perhaps too many of us have developed an over-reliance on our communication devices. We are lost without them, quite literally in some cases. But who really cares, unless there’s an emergency situation?

Sending resources to help someone during an emergency can be problematic, especially when the caller, who could be facing a life-threatening situation, hasn’t got a bloody clue where they are.  And I don’t mean the kind of ‘help’ they might ask for after forgetting where they parked their car… or misplacing their smartphone. The caller might be hyper-ventilating and/or blaming the call-taker for the suicidal tendencies they’re experiencing however; a lost car (or phone) isn’t really an emergency… don’t laugh it has been known.

The app that can save your life: Within a minute of its download, the police said they knew where the group was and the soaked and freezing walkers were swiftly found by the Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team. (BBC News)

What3Words – All it professes to be?

Earlier in 2019, Terrence Eden, a self-styled ‘Digital Troublemaker’ asked in his blog; Why Bother With What Three Words? From what I’ve read, I get the impression that Eden isn’t totally against the concept, or the intended purpose of What3Words, rather that their business ethics and ‘spun’ claims around ‘worth’ are a little dodgy.

I agree that W3W should be allowed to profit from their labour. I just think they should be more honest about the fact it is proprietary and that they should stop spinning it as an globally useful open standard. (Terrence Eden)

All that said, show me any tech company that isn’t prone to a little bit of hype and over-inflation about their actual worth today. It’s a common trait of many organisations with commercial interests of profit and growth.

Irrespective of any advantages/disadvantages provided by smartphone apps like What3Words, one of the biggest issues we have today is; people are way too complacent and content with expecting others to dig them out of the crap. That place they have (often) landed themselves in. Something our Mountain Rescue services can attest to, on an almost daily basis.

What3words uses a grid of the world made up of 57 trillion squares of 3 metres by 3 metres. Each square has been given an address composed of three words. … The what3words algorithm actively distributes similar-sounding three-word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated error-checking. (wikipedia.org)

According to What3Words the Emergency services have embraced this ‘new’ technology; “To find you more easily in an emergency, many UK Emergency Services are encouraging you to share your 3 word address” and I can (in part) understand why.

The W3W app helps to mitigate against many of the prevalent issues involved during emergency situations;

  • A large proportion of people who call the emergency for help have absolutely no idea where they are
  • Not all IT systems utilised by the emergency services have standardised functionality for command/control dispatch management.
  • The emergency services often fail to provide their staff with adequate training that would enable them to read/use maps and (sometimes archaic) mapping systems.
  • Having the caller use the W3W system mitigates against the need for technical and training resource investment

Skill Killing Technologies

In many respects, too many of us are way too reliant upon technological solutions for personal skill-based problems… mostly due to convenience factors i.e. we are lazy or disinterested in the effort required to learn a new skill, especially if our phone can do it for us… but what happens when the tech is faulty, or not available?

Outdoor Navigation

With my lifelong passion for the outdoors, and substantial amount of experience of working in and around the rescue and emergency services, a frustration of mine has always been; why would anyone let themselves get into a difficult situation where they don’t know where they are? But also, why have (some) emergency services failed to embrace systems and training that (mostly) already meet their location identification requirements?

The mapping and National Grid Reference system provided by The Ordnance Survey (for the UK) is just one example of a tried, tested and accurate system (see below) that already exists… which can also be accessed via a smartphone.

Understanding Grid References: There are two main types of grid reference in the UK National Grid:

  • four-figure grid reference, such as ’19 45′, indicating a 1 km by 1 km square on the map and;
  • six-figure grid reference, such as ‘192 454’ which indicates a 100 m by 100 m square on the map.

Some use of 8 figure grid references also exists, predominantly within the military (read more), which can provide even greater accuracy for identifying locations however; the actual scale of any map being used will also have an impact upon that accuracy. (Read more)

OK, so the above might not equate to the 3m x 3m square accuracy, claimed by W3W however, most mapping (in the UK) is/was based upon Ordnance Survey data. I can’t help thinking there is an element of ‘reinventing the wheel’ at play here, mostly for commercial purposes, and simply because too many people still can’t read (OS) maps. Or, have little or no cognisance of spacial awareness.

Navigation & Spacial Awareness

It might not always be appropriate to the surroundings however; learning the fundamentals of navigation would be a bloody good starting point for many, particularly for those heading off the beaten track and into the hills.

Worryingly, many people don’t even posses a modicum of spacial awareness… probably due to their eyes being almost permanently fixated on their smartphones. They are almost totally oblivious to their surroundings, even when driving a bloody vehicle, so what hope of them knowing where they are, let alone remembering the last signpost or landmark they passed?

But you don’t even need to venture outside, at least not initially, if you want to learn some of these valuable life-skills. You could start your learning process with some Armchair Navigation.

DEVELOP YOUR SKILLS: Whatever your planned activity for the day, be honest with yourself about you and your companions’ knowledge, fitness and ability. We all like to kid ourselves that we are fitter, or indeed more capable than we are but in this instance it pays to be honest. (adventuresmart.co.uk)

Back in 2018, The Great Outdoors magazine took a look at; what the future holds for map, compass, GPS and smartphone navigation (see here).

For decades, map and compass have been the last word in getting up the hill and back down again. But ever more sophisticated digital tools are now available, and in 2018 we stand at a crossroads. What does the future hold for the way we navigate in the mountains and on the trail? (The Great Outdoors)

Outdoor Navigation Resources

The Ultimate Navigation Manual is a unique guide to finding your way on land – from the basic principles right up to the advanced technology of GPS. Designed to allow even the absolute beginner to find their way anywhere in the world, it also develops a unique confidence in navigation – with or without technical aids.

This comprehensive guidebook to navigation with a map and compass, also provides advice about using GPS and digital mapping systems. Its aim is to help readers make the most of their outdoor experiences by learning how to use the map compass correctly. The techniques described will give readers the freedom to get away from the crowds, invent their own routes and discover new areas, even where their GPS (or smartphone) fails.

This practical handbook to navigation – the techniques of using map and compass – will help you master those key skills necessary for those walks off the beaten-track and/or away from civilisation. This pocket guides is an ideal companion.

Time spent practising navigation will not only provide you with the freedom and confidence to enjoy the hills and countryside but also… it will help to reduce the number of calls made to the emergency services and mountain rescue teams… from unprepared idiots happy to risk the lives of others because of their incompetence and/or self-interest.

Accidents can happen to anyone however adventure smart you are, so whatever your activity make sure you carry an appropriate means of calling for help should you need to. But importantly.. learn how to pinpoint where you are, know how to inform others about the location where assistance or help is needed… before the shit hits the fan!

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