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Waze Is Driving Into City Hall

Why is Waze aggressively building partnerships with government entities? It's all about the data.

[Photo: Flickr user David French]

In just a few years, Waze has gone from a small startup to one of the world’s most successful app makers. Sure, the startup’s acquisition by Google had a big part to play in that, but their biggest success was designing a navigation app based primarily on the give-and-take of crowdsourcing. Now the company is embarking on a similarly ambitious plan: making their product essential to government.

While it's known for sitting on dashboards, Waze is increasingly finding its way into city halls and government agencies. In late 2014, the company launched a "Connected Citizens program" with partners including the New York Police Department, Rio de Janeiro, the city of Boston, and the state of Florida. Described by Waze head of growth Di-Ann Eisnor as a "two-way street," the Waze program gives governments free access to Waze’s massive real-time data for planning purposes in exchange for contributing data that Waze can incorporate into the app.

And it gives Waze's corporate parent an important gift: an app that builds ties with governments just as Google faces antitrust charges in Europe, and urban service companies like Uber face scrutiny for the way they share data with and abide by the rules of municipalities.

Waze HQPhoto: Neal Ungerleider for Fast Company

At a summit for Waze government users I attended at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View on April 14, the big use cases participants were excited about involved garbage trucks and street sweepers. Already, Rio De Janeiro is using Waze to plan garbage pickup routes, Eisnor said. Under a new scheme, garbage trucks' GPS would send data back to the system in real time, letting users know the exact moment when trash pickup is blocking a small residential street. Waze spokesperson Trak Lord added, "The inclusion of the locations of waste management vehicles will allow our algorithms to route drivers around areas, residential or not, where one of those vehicles would otherwise impede their route."

There were also more conventional uses, such as city, state, or national transportation departments giving Waze advance data sets on highway construction or planned maintenance work.

Jose Colon, Washington, D.C., DOT's chief information officer, is using Waze data for a district-wide "war on potholes" called Potholeaplooza. Noting that there are approximately 650,000 Waze users in the Washington metropolitan area—roughly equivalent to the population of the District itself, excluding the suburbs—Colon explained how Waze is helping to crowdsource the discovery of potholes. So far in the 2015 fiscal year, 11,510 potholes were reported to the city by conventional methods like 311 calls from citizens and data entry by city DOT employees. After the city began collecting pothole data from Waze users on March 21, 2015, more than 10,000 pothole reports were made through Waze in less than a month. And that number is growing by the day, says the Department of Transportation.

Another of Waze’s partners, Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix, which creates web services to report non-emergency quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods, called this kind of citizen surveillance an important first step. "Reporting potholes is the gateway drug to civic empowerment," he said.

Waze Of Doing Business

As Waze continues to pitch itself as an authoritative source for real-time data on city streets, building partnerships with entities like the the city of Los Angeles or the New York Police Department (who feed street-closing information into Waze) helps Waze and Google establish lines of communications with influential government players, and perhaps smooth over existing tensions too.

As the service grew in popularity over the past few years, there were the inevitable bumped shoulders with law enforcement and community groups. In Los Angeles, residents of affluent neighborhoods have entered fake traffic accidents in Waze in an effort to divert rush-hour traffic from their streets.

Meanwhile, the National Sheriffs’ Association has called on Google to remove one of the most popular parts of the app: crowdsourced reporting of the location of police cars. Presumably intended to report the site of accidents or speed traps, the feature can be used to plan attacks on law enforcement, sheriffs say. The company has defended the data as serving a traffic safety function, while some cops have even responded by using the app to misreport their own locations.

Government also gets something out of partnering with Waze: Unlike many other private bundlers of transportation data, Waze offers its data sets for free. For cash-strapped government offices, that's an irresistible offer.

How they use that data, however, remains an open question. At the conference I attended, much of the discussion revolved around how to leverage data from Waze and import it into the varying computer programs used by transportation and civil service planners. For those used to aging software systems and more traditional forms of urban data collection, Waze is a radically new data source, and government techies are still struggling to figure out best practices for it. (Waze’s government partners, those in talks, and summit attendees include the DOTs of Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington state, the District of Columbia, and the cities of Barcelona, Boston, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, San Jose, Costa Rica, Sydney, Australia, Tel Aviv, and the NYPD, the Singapore Traffic Police, and the World Bank.)

How Waze visualizes traffic in Miami.

Friends In High Places

The partnership also weaves Waze into the fabric of government in a way that conventional GPS rivals like Garmin, TomTom, and Nokia can’t. Waze self-consciously adopts a cute aesthetic (cartoon icons, GPS directions in Elvis and boy band voices) that distracts users from the fact that they become real-time information vectors for the app at all times. As you’re driving down the highway using Waze, the app's default settings mean that anyone can see your approximate location (using information that's approximately three minutes old) on a map and click on an icon representing your car to see your user name. Unless an anonymous use feature is turned on, your boss can see if you’re late to work and your friends can see when you’ve ditched them to go across town. And every time you’re stuck in a traffic jam or lingering in a red light, your car is inadvertently generating data for Waze to put into their app.

An extreme idea of where this is headed comes from South America, where Rio de Janeiro is feverishly preparing for the 2016 Olympics. Pedro Peracio, the city’s chief digital officer, demonstrated how Waze is integrated into the city’s operations center, described by The Guardian as a "James Bond-villain mission control." Real-time traffic information from Waze is ported into the control room’s data stream and combined with feeds from 900 surveillance cameras across the city, mudslide sensors in the hills, smart sensors embedded in the roads, and real-time data feeds from emergency services, law enforcement, sanitation, and other services. Peracio told attendees that Waze users serve as "human sensors" that help reduce the city’s infamous traffic.

Photo: Luciola Villela, courtesy City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Florida’s Department of Transportation, which oversees the state’s sprawling highway system, sees porting data to Waze as a way of "meeting more motorists" and reducing traffic by reaching drivers in a different form than a radio traffic report. Meanwhile, attendees were being encouraged to add information from Waze (how long it’ll take to reach downtown, for instance) to the ubiquitous digital signage along their highways that report accidents and estimated travel time; this is already taking place in Brazil.

Because governments are required to contribute information to Waze as part of the agreement, it also helps Waze establish market dominance over rivals—and, possibly in the future, augment Google Maps’s market position over rival programs from Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, in-car GPS makers, OpenStreetMap, and more. It's not the only member of the new breed of urban information-gatherers to use data as an olive branch in building relationships with government: Uber began sharing anonymized data sets with cities such as Boston earlier this year.

Waze is used in Rio de Janeiro's urban command center.Photo: Luciola Villela, courtesy City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Since it was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.1 billion, Waze has operated as an autonomous fiefdom inside the company, running largely independently while benefitting from Mountain View’s pull and connections. Because Waze is part of a privileged "A-list" of Google acquisitions that also includes YouTube, home automation firm Nest, and advertising outfits DoubleClick and AdMob, it largely goes its own way while feeding limited information such as traffic jams into Google Maps. But that could change. Waze, which was founded in Israel in 2008, is currently moving its employees from the company’s offices into Google’s prominent Tel Aviv complex.

The growing links between Waze and Google and governments heralds a new urban age where sensors are ubiquitous, and we’re all little data points in a real-life game of SimCity. Every traffic jam or stalled vehicle entered into Waze is part of an unspoken quid pro quo: I get to the office or to the game a little earlier, and Waze gets more information than the competition. As governments become part of the deal too, gleaning what they can from that data, Google increases their presence in your car just a bit more, and all over the map.

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