This bridge is not so pretty when you’re stuck on it for two hours. (Thinkstock)
Two years ago, when Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City roads, blocking them with water and debris, the authorities needed help. How could they possibly know about all the problems plaguing the city, when so many of its residents were without their normal lines of communication?
That’s when Waze, a popular navigation app whose real-time traffic and incident information comes from drivers using the app, got a call from the White House.
The company, which was recently bought by Google, worked with local authorities to deliver quicker updates to communities and to deploy needed roadside aid in areas of chaos. This experience inspired Waze to expand its efforts beyond natural disasters.
For the unfamiliar, Waze is a mobile traffic app that people can download on their smartphones. Like TomTom or Google Maps, Waze gives you step-by-step directions to a requested location. But it differs by encouraging individuals to manually send in incident reports that mark the precise locations of accidents on the road, traffic jams, and other driving hazards — all of which show up on a collective map. As more drivers continue to participate in the community, they accumulate points, and their contributions eventually carry more weight. The tool also offers opportunities to message nearby Wazers and to search for the cheapest gas prices nearby.
Last night at a conference in New York, Waze announced a partnership with authorities in eight cities — Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Jakarta, Tel Aviv, San José (Costa Rica), Boston, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles — as well as the New York Police Department and the state of Florida, to help cities and residents improve traffic monitoring and accident response times.
In the collaboration, Waze will build tools to open a two-way communication between the company and the local governments of these cities. Waze will send governments its real-time data so they’re aware of what’s happening on their major roads, and governments will channel information they get from road sensors, planned construction, marathons, or anything else of which the city has prior knowledge.
The intended result? Local authorities will be able to mount quicker and smarter responses to unplanned traffic incidents, and millions of drivers who use Waze will be even better informed as they’re navigating the roads.
Waze’s Connected Citizens program has already been put to the test in Rio, where a visit from Pope Francis last fall complicated traffic. The city’s control center, the Centro de Operações Prefeitura do Rio, used Waze’s information in its traffic control center, integrating reports from the system with existing information it had gathered from street cameras and road sensors. This helped the cities inform citizens of upcoming traffic jams and address issues of major congestion.
“Cities are unlocking that information, including the quality and quantity of reports that are coming back into Waze, particularly where all navigation devices fail, which is on the collision side,” Waze’s head of global partnerships Di-Ann Eisnor said at the event. “You really need the millions of reports that are coming in, but also for the government to know when it’s supposed to do something about it.”
Of course, being owned by Google does raise some concern about how the behemoth search company will use this information. Eisnor says the data will be available to Google, but that Waze has mostly operated independently from Google on this initiative.
“If you’re a company that starts to sell that data, you confuse yourself,” she said at the event. “We’re only sharing what’s publicly available to Wazers.”