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When Larry Geller thought to stop by Liliha Bakery to bring some coco puffs to a meeting, he already was cutting it close.
“Big mistake,” the Honolulu blogger said. “The line for the bakery went out the door.”
Even switching to a lesser treat left him in a long line at the cashier. By the time he emerged he knew that he was going to be late.
“This is a job for Waze,” he recalled thinking.
Waze, a smartphone navigation app, has become among the most popular tools tech-savvy drivers use to get from point A to point B. Many apps take advantage of municipal and real-time transit data, but Waze adds a not-so-secret ingredient that may seem positively quaint in today’s fully automated, increasingly artificially intelligent world: people.
Like its competition, Waze draws insights by tracking the movements of its users, monitoring average speeds on highways and detecting traffic jams. But reports by Waze users cover things that no other app can, like a mattress that suddenly flew off a truck and onto the highway or a giant pothole or the location of a police speed trap.
“[Waze] had my destination already, since it was in my phone calendar and sent me along a route around the back side of Punchbowl, which I thought was a bit weird,” Geller said. “But good thing I took that advice because Beretania Street was coned off into a single lane for construction.”
Geller was only 5 minutes late, but he said he could’ve lost half an hour had he gone the way he normally does.
“I’ve learned to trust ‘Wazey’ and she has always come through for me,” he said.
Waze was born in Israel in 2006 as FreeMap. At the time, the plan was merely to build a digital road map of the country without having to license an official map from then-dominant companies like Navteq or Tele Atlas — maps that were still incomplete and out of date.
Waze built its maps through crowdsourcing: Users filled in roads as they drove on them; and in less than five years, the company changed its name, expanded to Asia and raised $45 million.
Google, by then the only other major player in mapping, bought Waze for $1.1 billion in 2013. Today, Waze boasts over 50 million monthly active users, and many of their real-time reports of accidents and other road hazards are also incorporated in Google Maps.
Waze works in hundreds of cities in dozens of countries, but only truly shines in areas where there is a critical mass of users. In its early days in Honolulu, the Waze map was very rough and the company encouraged users to drive along lesser-traveled roads by placing virtual cupcakes and awarding points along those routes.
Today, the local map includes details down to lane directions in parking lots and pedestrian walking paths. Changes such as new “no left turn” restrictions are often reflected in the app within a day.
But as utopian as crowdsourcing may sound in theory, it can be very messy in reality. Average people often generate merely average information. To ensure that the maps and information in Waze are accurate, the company relies on a small army of volunteer map editors.
There are more than 360,000 volunteer Waze map editors globally. In Hawaii, there are about a dozen active map editors who work together to improve, update and correct the information in the app.
Douglas McCracken started using Waze in 2011.
“At that time, the Waze map still had a lot of errors; and when I had submitted reports of those errors, the response time was really long,” he said. “I decided to check it out to see if I could fix it myself, and it snowballed from there.”
Among his more memorable contributions was untangling some odd route suggestions in Waikiki.
“I discovered that there was a duplicate Ala Wai Boulevard directly overlaying the other, and one of them was connected to only some of the intersecting streets while the other was connected to the other intersecting streets,” he said. “Fixing that was fun.”
“I like the idea of crowdsourcing, the majority working for the greater good.” — Korey Wong, volunteer map editor
McCracken, an audiovisual professional who works in Waikiki, was promoted up through the Waze volunteer ranks. He served as area manager for Oahu, then Maui, then Hawaii Island and is now a state manager, putting in 30 to 35 hours a week with Waze.
He said he’s driven to work on the map for reasons big and small.
“Before I had a navigation app, I took a trip to a major city on the mainland and got lost in a scary part of town, and I didn’t want that to happen to anybody else,” McCracken said. “That’s one end of the spectrum. … I also like the ability to help decrease the average commute time, especially for myself.”
Korey Wong, who works in IT by day, contributes to Waze by night.
“I like the idea of crowdsourcing, the majority working for the greater good,” Wong said. “Some weeks I’m only on a few hours, others I work for whole days. But I feel like Waze is a hobby of mine, it honestly does not feel like work.”
Wong also recalls the early days of Waze, which he tried after using a TomTom navigation device.
“The thing that I liked about Waze over my TomTom was that if there was a problem with the road, I could go in and fix it and it would magically show up in a week or so, whereas the TomTom maps were usually updated quarterly or even yearly.”
He was quickly drawn into the small but devoted community of map editors, which had its work cut out for it in the early days.
“Seeing as how the Oahu map was not that great, I started with the daunting task of trying to fix everything,” Wong said, adding that the Maui map was a mess as well. “All the roads there were skewed to the northwest … I ended up having to delete and redraw most roads on the island.”
Now, sometimes there’s not much editing to do in the islands.
“The Hawaii map is pretty mature now, so the state managers just maintain the map by setting closures from the [state] Department of Transportation and HART, major sporting events like marathons, and fixing update requests from in-app users,” Wong said.
Reports from users are what make Waze useful when dealing with rail-related construction.
“We have to monitor to see if there are any update requests from in-app users or on social media that may say that a lane is not in fact closed, or was closed, contrary to the HART releases,” he said.
And when things are quiet at home, local map editors join in on ‘Mega Map Raids,’ where the whole Waze editing community collectively focuses on one region of the globe where the map is less complete. Recent raids have focused on Kenya and Thailand, where Wong has done enough work to be designated an area manager.
While Waze touts its ability to help drivers “outsmart traffic,” its crowdsourced information has ruffled feathers.
Some law enforcement officials are critical of the fact that Waze includes the location of police speed traps, saying it could interfere with investigations or operations or limit their ability to issue tickets.
For its part, Waze said it has the support of many law enforcement agencies because its app complements their efforts to improve road safety.
“Police partners support Waze and its features, including reports of police presence, because most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby,” company spokeswoman Julie Mossler told Reuters.
Local photographer John Johnson said the speed trap alerts aren’t the main reason he uses Waze.
“The police information helps me every six months or so, but the traffic info helps me on every drive,” he said. “It can get you to strange places and I don’t always take its advice, but I like seeing estimated arrival times and seeing the traffic conditions.“
“As a computer geek, it thrills me to see that altruism can be coded and realized in the form of a smartphone app.” — Larry Geller, Waze user
Routing drivers through “strange locations” is another way in which Waze has sparked some controversy. To help drivers avoid traffic jams, the app often routes them along side streets and through neighborhoods that are not accustomed to streams of cars.
“Yesterday, I had Waze directing me through a labyrinth of small streets in Moiliili,” said Paul Lawler, a Honolulu IT professional. “I’m sure it was faster, but I felt funny. … When I found myself on narrow streets with cars parked on both sides (effectively rendering them one way) and kids, dogs and cats, I got nervous.”
In some mainland communities, residents have taken to making false reports in the Waze app to try and deflect drivers. But civil engineers and map geeks have had to deal with shortcuts and shifting traffic patterns for a long time.
“This has been going on from the moment Garmin and TomTom came out a decade ago,” said Stan Fichtman, a McCully resident and avid traveler. “With computer programming the way it is and the algorithm on how to get from X to Y more precise than ever, these routes tend to pop up no matter where you are.”
Fichtman said Waze could consider allowing users to flip a switch to avoid neighborhoods, the same way they can opt-out of toll roads, dirt roads and other less common routes.
“I think that this will bring out those who are socially conscious and will want to have an option to omit residential areas from their route,” he said. “But personally, whatever gets me to where I need to be both safe and in good time is my baseline.”
As part of Google, Waze continues to grow and evolve. Its maps now include community-submitted points of interest, gas prices and local business promotions. The recent integration of users’ calendars allow the app to alert them when it’s time to leave for an appointment.
And the map editing community is also broadening.
“I have noticed an exponential growth of new editors,” Wong said. “Hawaii being a tourist destination, we also get guest editors here from the U.S. and abroad.”
He admits that more editors can sometimes mean more editing mistakes, but that “we do welcome new editors and the challenge of mentoring them to recognize what good and bad editing would be.”
“As a computer geek, it thrills me to see that altruism can be coded and realized in the form of a smartphone app,” Geller said. “Just running it contributes to the greater good, as does tuning up an intersection by editing the map, if I have time to do that.
“We Waze users help each other constantly. We are the best people,” he added.