Mapping the Future: The Tech Transforming How We Move Through The World

What3Words is revolutionising navigation around the globe, but is it the future?

Key Takeaways

  • Cartography is transforming with innovative technologies.

  • What3words promises more accurate location services.

  • An autonomous future is changing the way we use maps.


Since the beginning of time humans have followed the stars, painted graphic maps onto cave walls and developed tools to inform our movement. Today, we can orient ourselves within seconds via GoogleMaps* on our smartphones, using local addresses. But more transformation is afoot, with the reimagining of the data-points used to accurately source locations by what3words*, the latest mapping app that’s saving lives and enhancing fleets of intelligent vehicles around the world.

From compasses to the printing press, to satellite imagery, the 20th Century has brought cartography into the third dimension.

Tracing the Impacts and Evolution of Cartography

In our lifetime, maps have shifted from vast paper documents – seemingly impossible to refold – to digital tools summoned on demand. But to truly appreciate the impact of the evolution of mapping, we must first journey back through time and understand how they have already shaped our world. Beyond navigating human discovery and aiding migration, maps have defined the space we live in, politicising and developing territories. They have given rise to sovereign states and therefore international relations, played a strategic role in World War II and subsequent conflicts – as well as facilitating negotiations in subsequent treaties.

Maps visually organise our global perspective, shifting with historical, cultural, and geographic change. They have been influenced by commerce, for example during the Dutch Golden Age (1580s – 1702) when their expert seafaring, ship building and cartography carried Dutch business and place names across the globe. Our maps are embedded with colonial references, symbols that tell us more than where we are. “So what?”, you’re thinking. Well, it means that with any innovation that helps us to redefine and organise our world, there will be nuances – and therefore, debate.

From compasses to the printing press, to satellite imagery, the 20th Century has brought cartography into the third dimension. But today it is algorithms and powerful software, accessed in the palm of our hands or from a vehicle’s dashboard, that is transforming maps as we know them. Intelligent vehicles are already directing users around the world to their destinations – and businesses are relying upon location-based services on GPS, for example, as much as emergency services. However, one challenge that remains is accuracy.

Game-changing Innovation in Three-words

That’s where what3words comes in, an app that is gaining traction around the world for its generation of three-word addresses. It uses a system with the accuracy of coordinates, but with user friendly words as opposed to 16-digit numbers like 40.7127753, -74.0059728. Established by Co-founder Chris Sheldrick following a series of frustrating encounters in the music industry – including dropping off equipment on the wrong side of Rome and sound-checking at the wrong wedding – he sought to address the problem of inaccurate addresses. With the help of a mathematician and a translator, an algorithm was created to generate a three-word code for every 3m by 3m around the world. Essentially, splitting the world into 57 trillion squares.

Solving the issues encountered due to duplicate addresses, unchartered areas, and inaccurate map pins in apps, what3words has a wide range of use cases – and is going viral. From festival goers locating a tent, to hikers lost in the wilderness and delivery businesses looking to save time with more accurate recipient locations, the generation of three seemingly random and yet unique words means they’ll never be lost.

Sixty UK emergency services teams now use the app in the UK and South Africa’s leading emergency service ER24* has also partnered with what3words for a faster response. “In an emergency, getting accurate location information can be crucial. ER24’s partnership with what3words will help us locate people where physical addresses are not present. We want to ensure that we give people more ways to get help and fast”, said Ben Johnson, ER24 Chief Executive Officer.

“Being in urgent need of help and not being able to describe your accurate location can be incredibly stressful for the person involved and a difficult situation for the emergency services”, said Lyndsey Duff, what3words South Africa Country Manager.

However, the app has also unearthed concerns around a system that is increasingly relied upon by emergency services that is not immediately accessible – you have to download the app to reveal your location – and that sits in the hands of a public technology company. In addition, while being available in 35 languages the three words for any individual location are different across each language which could lead to confusion. Then there is the question over the appropriateness of certain words being used to define certain places and the cultural implications. For example, below are the English words for iconic European locations:

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris ///clearly.convert.tramps
Auschwitz, Poland ///fail.cried.cities
10 Downing Street, London ///slurs.this.shark

However, its full steam ahead for businesses. Indian and Chinese carmakers Tata Motors* and WM Motors* have announced that they will incorporate the three-word address system into their vehicles, helping drivers to navigate precisely by text or voice entry. “We have increasingly come to expect a level of connectivity and services that matches our smartphones and home voice assistant levels of accuracy. By saying a 3 word address, drivers can arrive at the precise and correct location – the first time”, said Chris Sheldrick, what3words Co-founder, and CEO. Meanwhile, Ford* and Mercedez Benz* already use the app.

Mapping the Future

what3words is not alone in its quest to reimagine how we map our world, though it is certainly stands out for its creativity. The list of digital map services is growing, with partnerships pooling expertise in order to bolster accuracy and practicality in tomorrow’s world. Indeed, with autonomous cars edging closer to reality, we need smart city infrastructure that can support them and mapping services are being called upon in increasingly integrated ways. That's why Mobileye is partnering with Ordnance Survey* (OS*), Great Britain's national mapping agency. The aim is to create a detailed map of Britain's roadside infrastructure, with unprecedented levels of accuracy.

The collaboration involves businesses with fleets of vehicles, such as utility companies, installing Mobileye's camera-based safety and mapping technology on their vehicles so that they can gather data as they drive around. Together, they will help to capture a street-level 'worm's eye' view of the nation's road network. Both Mobileye and Intel are working hard to help build the cars and road infrastructure of the future.

With every twist and turn in the evolution of modern mapping, technology is both a driving force and enabler of greater innovation. However, as we play with the latest services and come to rely on ubiquitous technologies, it would perhaps be wise to also look beyond the practicalities and consider how these are continuing to shape culture, movement, and our perception of the world.

*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others