Waze: Paving the Future of Digital Mapping
Waze has tapped into the power of a community of drivers, crowdsourcing data to build the world's best digital maps and traffic navigation system.
What is Waze and how is it different?
Traditional digital maps, made by companies such as TomTom and Google, are difficult and expensive to make, and often contain inaccurate information . The process starts with a base map, usually from government data . The map looks pretty good, but when you look closer, you see many roads aren’t in accurate locations.
Mapping services manually correct these problems, but new issues constantly arise (such as road closures, new roads, etc.). It takes massive companies like Google and TomTom to build digital maps of the world precisely because it is so hard to do. For drivers, these maps have been their best option for navigating to new places. That all changed with Waze.
Waze, a digital mapping service founded in Israel in 2006, launched with the goal of saving drivers time by making extremely accurate maps with real-time updates . Instead of laboriously building maps and tightly controlling them like competing services, Waze has leveraged the digital revolution, crowdsourcing data from drivers to make the best digital maps in the world . Tens of millions of drivers input massive amounts of real-time data about everything from nearby cops, to potholes, to car accidents blocking the road, helping other commuters optimize their travel routes and avoid unwanted delays.
From a cost perspective, Waze has dodged the huge infrastructure costs incurred by groups like TomTom and Google (think of Google’s mapping cars driving all over the world); it merely has to maintain the quality of its phone app and powerful software .
How is Waze using digital transformation to develop its business and organizational model?
As more and more people acquire phones with internet access and GPS chips, what once took a huge capital investment can be done piecemeal by a community – for free! Anyone driving with the Waze app open is sending data to Waze that allows it to build maps from the ground up, improve accuracy, and provide real-time traffic information.
The unique process uses digital information in a clever and revolutionary way:
- Waze users drive with the Waze app open on their smartphones. The app collects GPS data, which is transmitted in real-time to Waze and an initial map is drawn.
- As more data is collected, the map is made more accurate. For example, speed, direction, number of cars, etc. can be used to determine if a road is a highway, one-way, or a side street, after which traffic patterns are identified.
- Community members edit the map, adding street names and correcting inaccurate roads, etc. 
Waze has created a virtuous cycle with positive network effects: more Wazers provide better data, and therefore better maps, and better maps attract new Wazers.
While Waze relies on the power of the community to make its product (in fact, there are only about 100 Waze employees), it captures value by displaying location-relevant ads for businesses such as restaurants and stores.
So how good is this big data?
While Waze is a for-profit company, users find the data so useful and the experience of contributing to a community so rewarding that Waze has achieved some remarkable things:
- Wazers actually created some countries’ first complete digital maps, for example in Costa Rica !
- The maps, and especially the data from its +50 million users, are so valuable that Apple uses Waze’s data to help power its own map service, and Google bought Waze in 2013 for ~$1 billion .
- By identifying traffic (and events that would likely cause traffic), Waze re-routes cars from roads that are over capacity to roads that have excess capacity, improving road utilization and decreasing drivers’ throughput time.
- Waze reduces carbon emissions by decreasing the amount of time drivers spend on the road .
- Waze partners with local governments through its Connected Citizens Program and exchanges data at no cost. The massive amount of real-time driving information from Wazers allows cities to iterate traffic flow decisions like never before . It also provides first responders with critical traffic and routing information that shaves life-saving minutes off their routes .
What should Waze do next?
Waze’s target customer has been drivers. One hugely positive benefit of saving people time has been the reduced carbon emissions. Another way to contribute to this global cause would be to leverage the same technology to crowdsource the best bike routes. Governments are woefully behind in creating bike lanes and infrastructure for cyclists and as a result, safe bike routes are difficult to come by. As Waze observes where users bike, it can share this information with other cyclists and at the same time, it can help local governments target which roads should be made safer for cyclists (by painting dedicated bike lanes, etc.). Finally, Waze can capture value by enabling local businesses to offer bikers targeted ads through Waze. Time will tell what roads Waze will take next!
- The Atlantic, “How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything,” http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/how-google-builds-its-maps-and-what-it-means-for-the-future-of-everything/261913/, accessed November 2016.
- Pocket Lint, “Mapping paradise: How TomTom maps are made,” http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/115883-how-tomtom-maps-are-made, accessed November 2016.
- Waze, “Reshaping The Way We Drive | Waze,” YouTube, published October 16, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgFJsja_Qyw, accessed November 2016.
- Popular Mechanics, “How Waze Conquered Mapping with Thousands of Volunteers,” http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/a15624/waze-volunteer-work-force/, accessed November 2016
- Forbes, “How Waze Cleverly Uses Drivers To Make Better Maps Than Apple’s,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2013/01/03/how-waze-cleverly-uses-drivers-to-make-better-maps-than-apples/#1c3522296592, accessed November 2016.
- TechCrunch, “WTF Is Waze And Why Did Google Just Pay A Billion+ For It?,” https://techcrunch.com/2013/06/11/behind-the-maps-whats-in-a-waze-and-why-did-google-just-pay-a-billion-for-it/, accessed November 2016.
- TechCrunch, “Waze and Esri make app-to-infrastructure possible,” https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/11/waze-and-ezri-make-app-to-infrastructure-possible/, accessed November 2016.
- Waze, “Waze Connected Citizens Program: Improving Mobility Through Big-Data Partnerships [Full version],” YouTube, published March 25, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-_VjPesrMs, accessed November 2016.
- Waze, “Get To Know Waze,” YouTube, published March 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPpZNzXqId0, accessed November 2016.
- Featured image: Brandfolder, https://assets.brandfolder.com/header_images/qv93461/1447715609/providertemplate.jpg, accessed November 2016.
Student comments on Waze: Paving the Future of Digital Mapping
Great write-up, thanks. 2 quick questions:
1. Has Google adopted Waze’s crowdsourced functionality into Google Maps, or do they want to keep the two separate? I agree that Waze is (at scale) a better approach to road-mapping, but since Google Maps is probably installed on more phones, it still has greater reach. If there’s a way to put the two together, everybody would win. This raises the broader question of what happens to mission-oriented innovative companies that end up getting acquired by larger companies; ideally, they can leverage the parent’s platform to reach more people and expand the addressable market.
2. Do Waze drivers report obstacles/etc after they arrive at their destination, or whilst they are en route? If it’s the latter, is it not a little bit concerning from a distraction perspective (similar to texting whilst driving)?
Rafi, this is a great article that many of us can relate to and is equally exciting for those of who do bike because of the ideas you mentioned about the next steps Waze can take. I currently do not use Waze as my go-to GPS application because I find it a bit more cumbersome to use versus Google Maps, who I know acquired Waze, but if Waze was to make its app simpler to use, I would switch right away!
I do value your ideas about Waze’s next steps to help map the biking routes in cities that are the safest and the best routes to use. Since moving to Boston, I have become a huge fan of the great job Cambridge has done to create separate biking lanes and lanes that are clearly marked for cyclists to use. However, these lanes do not currently exist throughout Boston, but it would be great to begin mapping the safest routes around the city – this may even persuade Boston officials to lobby for the creation of dedicated bike lanes like the one on Western Avenue throughout the city. Furthermore, the collection of data across multiple cities could help introduce the advantage of creating a bike sharing program similar to Hubway in their cities and to invest in the infrastructure that would make it a success. As a native Houstonian, I know how far behind the city is in public transportation. Every city needs to play a role in creating an eco-friendly mode of transportation because our planer depends on it.
One of my biggest concerns with Waze is the safety involved with using an app that requires real-time input when you are driving (or biking). Has Waze thought about using a voice activated feature that can capture real-time input while driving or biking? This would eliminate having to stop or to input feedback while moving.
Having lived recently lived in a city with great public transit and now as a student, I haven’t driven enough lately to become a huge user of Waze, but I certainly know many who advocate (adamantly!) for how helpful the app is. I was recently in the car with one such user, who asked me for my help as a passenger to input information like police speed traps we passed. As I wasn’t driving I had no problem entering them, but I had similar questions to the previous commenter around safety when you ask for actively-entered data points. Overall traffic levels can be measured passively, but more detailed information may require drivers to either become distracted and enter while driving or wait until they reach their destination (by which time they may already have out of date information to provide). As far as consuming the information the app provides, there are also lots of alerts that can be communicated to the driver. While less distracting than reading those alerts, even just continuous verbal updates might distract drivers, I do wonder how Waze can continue to iterate on collecting and providing accurate, up-to-the-minute updates to their users while ensuring that users remain safe with the focus on the road.
Thanks for the post Rafi. As a staunch Waze user and supporter, I love what they are doing here. Their operation’s foundation relies mainly on the passion of the community in helping others get the best routes for their destination. The gamification of this aspect of their business model actually feeds the passion, where people want to keep posting updates or modifications of the route because ultimately someone will be helping them in the future. However, I think Waze needs to watch out for a risk: I have heard of neighborhoods that never had any traffic coming through pre-Waze. After Waze became big, there were tons of cars coming through what used to be a low-key neighborhood. To combat this influx of traffic, the people of that neighborhood would send faulty updates that there was traffic on that street so Waze users would be directed elsewhere, falsely. As you can see, Waze can create winner and losers in its effort to help its drivers avoid long trips and traffic, but at what cost? Whatever side of the argument you are on, Waze should also look to have more verified data so its trip recommendations are as accurate as possible. Waze will likely need to work with governments in the future, as their technology will impact the way in which city planners choose to build new roads and other infrastructure.
Great post, Raphi! With any product that relies heavily on crowd sourced information, you would need to depend heavily on the credibility of the individuals providing the inputs. I could see this system being abused in several different ways. Firstly, individuals in residential areas can miss report on traffic accidents so they don’t have congestion from cars who are rerouting themselves to avoid traffic. Secondly, police officers can miss report areas where they are stationed so that drivers may driver slower that posted to avoid being stopped or fine. Overall I think Waze is a great tool to get realtime traffic reporting that is not captured by Google map technology.
Rafi! Love Waze. Great topic. My concern is that I don’t totally understand how one can bike and use the app. As someone who bikes, I definitely need both hands on the wheel! And, it’s important for safety reasons to be mentally focused and aware of your surroundings while driving on the road. It’s still so dangerous to bike on roads given how much transportation is dominated in many cities in favor of drivers. With Waze, a passenger is able to navigate and input the information. Waze even (awesomely) makes sure to ask that you aren’t the driver before it allows you to route.