Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog



Waze Stealing the Keys to Your City

by Roger Lanctot | Feb 19, 2016

Waze’s Connected Citizens program continues to get a lot of positive attention for its partnerships with cities and states around the world. The program provides free access to Waze traffic and crowd-sourced data in exchange for information about road closures and traffic incidents.

Waze is proud of the fact that authorities as august as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) have reached out to the app developer in times of crisis, as in the case of Hurricane Sandy, for help identifying the location of closed gas stations. Waze is also lauded for helping municipalities locate potholes and provide an early warning system for traffic jams.

The positive vibe is heart-warming but it obscures some important realities. Cities and states around the globe are struggling to come to terms with rapidly changing demands on transportation infrastructure. Most transportation executives believe that they will need data to confront and overcome these challenges. The reality is that Waze is part of the problem not the answer.

No one can dispute the power of Waze’s crowdsourcing engine for collecting, aggregating and interpreting traffic information and the value of its routing.  The problem arises from the fact that Waze is first and foremost an advertising platform and, secondarily, has a predisposition to route users away from primary and secondary roads.

Since Waze prioritizes real-time information it is more likely to create rather than mitigate traffic jams by routing drivers to streets not normally accustomed to large volumes of traffic.  The real-time focus means that Waze’s main weakness is its predictive modeling.

While HERE, TomTom, INRIX, v-trafic and other traffic information service providers pride themselves on the accuracy of their data and carefully refine their predictive models for both consumers and enterprise users, Waze relies entirely on real-time, crowdsourced consumer inputs that emphasize what is happening in the moment.

States and cities partnering with Waze are only fueling this real-time info-mania, while sacrificing their ability to manage the movement of people and vehicles around their states and municipalities. They work with and endorse Waze at their peril – actively steering potential users away from existing 511 traffic information services and other official resources.

The net result is that 511 services around the U.S. (and their equivalents around the world) are withering and increasingly faced with defunding.  Waze’s offer of free information in exchange for the keys to valuable local data sources is undermining the direct connections cities and states need to communicate vital traffic and transport information on an everyday basis and especially in emergencies.

But state, local and even Federal authorities are partnering with Waze and its parent, Alphabet, oblivious of an even more egregious inherent conflict.  Waze can only be used via a smartphone in a moving vehicle by a driver. Transportation authorities are directly encouraging distracted driving, something clearly identified as a life-threatening scourge by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (3,000+ estimated annual fatalities in the U.S.).

This conflict is further reflected in the Federal Railway Administration’s efforts to have railway crossing locations accurately identified in Google maps – which can only be used in moving vehicles via smartphone. The FRA ought to be working more closely with and prioritizing TomTom, Telenav, NNG, HERE, Elektrobit and other embedded navigation suppliers that work on maps built into automobile dashboards.

Cities and states have valuable data resources. Many of these organizations already have citizen-facing apps for assisting in the location of transportation alternatives and, in some cases, enabling payment for services.

The appeal of Waze is the crowdsourcing element.  Yet crowdsourcing is a core weakness of the app as well.  Waze has an elaborate vetting process for incoming data, but since the application’s priority is on real-time information the threshold for bad information penetrating the system is low.

Waze remains focused on alerts and advertising, both of which are potential sources of distraction.  As colorful and eye-catching as the Waze app may be, the wealth of information being communicated tends toward information overload.

Waze is the single most popular and powerful speed trap locator in the world. Waze users can warn other users of the app of the presence and location of law enforcement officers. In most instances that may mean a speed trap, but in some instances it may only be a heads-up that a law enforcement officer is in the area or on the way somewhere – useful information for criminals.

Finally, the TomTom’s, HERE’s, NNG’s, Telenav’s, Harman's and Elektrobit’s of the world are held to a higher standard of map, traffic information and routing accuracy. Their systems are built into vehicles and must work reliably and pass rigorous and regular testing. (These systems do require map updates, a weakness the industry is working to remedy.)

But best of all, the systems from these companies do not require a smartphone and are designed to mitigate driver distraction.

The solution

Every city and every state ought to have a process and platform for sharing valuable traffic and transportation information with the public. It is not enough to just open up the data spigot.  It is the responsibility of local authorities to actively provide their official guidance, a la 511 messages, regarding the current and anticipated demands on the local transportation infrastructure.

More importantly, local authorities need their own systems in place such that citizens know where to go for urgent information in the event of a crisis.  Local authorities cannot be dependent upon Waze to communicate with travelers. Waze has clearly demonstrated it has a mind of its own.  In fact, Waze users cherish Waze’s independence.

But just as Waze benefits from users volunteering and sharing their data, city, state and Federal authorities must go further than simply sharing their data. These representatives must provide the means for citizens to opt-in and share their location data in turn.

Many cities, such as Las Vegas, have begun this process.  They are actively reaching out with apps and surveys to learn more about the commutes that shape the daily transportation landscape. But more needs to be done.

Working with Waze is only endorsing the process of undoing and retarding the use of existing transportation resources – sucking the lifeblood of citizen support for local transportation management systems. It’s time for municipalities to take back the keys from Waze and take charge of their transportation affairs.

Previous Post: Might Apple Acquire BMW? | Next Post: Tesla's Secret Weapon
Leave a comment