I’ve become pathetically reliant on my iPhone for finding my way around, but there’s one thing that online mapping applications don’t prepare me for — traffic. Even when applications include traffic data, the information isn’t provided in real-time, or it isn’t accounted for when calculating driving directions, or both. Enter a new service called Waze, which is beginning a private alpha test in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Waze takes data provided by the applications’ users on how quickly traffic is moving at that moment to calculate the optimum driving route. That means the data is both more up-to-date and cheaper to collect than what’s traditionally offered by data sources like Navteq. For example, a driver who lives in San Francisco but works in Mountain View can log in every morning to see if they should take the 101 (a more direct freeway, but with worse traffic), or whether traffic is bad enough that they should choose the 280. Then as they drive, they can keep the application on, and it uses GPS to monitor their speed to help the next driver. Users can also send in reports about things like accidents and constructions.
The company also uses the data to build the maps themselves, which can be edited by users, becoming a Wikipedia of maps. The more data a user provides, and the more reliable they turn out to be, the more power they have in editing.
Of course, there are drawbacks: First and foremost, you need a decent user base for the data to be meaningful. Also, if those users are constantly turning Waze off to use other applications, that also stops the flow of data. But the company says the service is already a hit in Israel, with more than 80,000 users providing data on 90 percent of the country’s roads. In the United States, Waze is starting in a specific geographic area (San Francisco and surroundings) on a specific set of devices (smartphones using Google’s Android operating system), but there are plans to expand to other cities like Chicago and Boston, and other devices like Windows Mobile phones and iPhones.
Meanwhile, Waze says money-making opportunities come from selling the data (none of it identifying specific drivers, of course) to companies, which is how it can give its application away for free. It has raised a first funding round of undisclosed size from Blue Run Ventures, Magma Ventures, and Vertex Venture Capital.