waze screenshot
waze screenshotcourtesy

You can “be social” - communicate with friends and acquaintances on-line – almost everywhere today. There are apps designed to let you share your experiences while you eat, shop, exercise, watch TV – and, thanks to Israeli starttup Waze, while you drive!

If you've never tried Waze, you're in for a treat – and if you have, you know how helpful this free app can be. Waze is a combination map program, direction finder, voice-enable GPS navigation system, traffic avoider, alternative-style radar detector, shopping and tourism assistant, communication system, and game!

Designed for use on cellphones (there is version for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows, and even Symbian phones), Waze determines your location and lets you plot a route, by address or landmark; when you do, it gives you reports on traffic problems around you and on your route. If you want, you can set up Waze to give you turn-by-turn audio instructions – just like expensive audio navigation systems. As you drive, the app updates its traffic reports, and if a major problem ensues, Waze will even suggest alternative routes. And, if there is a problem along the way – like a speed trap – Waze will let you know where to slow down!

It sounds like Waze employs a fleet of traffic experts who are constantly on patrol to bring you the latest traffic news – but actually, the Waze people don't do much more than maintain the app and the Waze servers, which provide the navigation information (automatically, of course). The traffic data Waze brings users actually comes from the users themselves, who report on traffic jams, accidents, and traffic cop sitings. Reports from users get uploaded to Waze's real-time map (you can see it online as well as in the cellphone app), and the reports come into view as you drive along.

But Waze can do its magic even when a user isn't actively reporting anything. Using GPS location information, the app can figure out how fast or how slow you're going, based on where you were and where you are. If you're going slower than expected – say, you've moved only three kilometers during the time you should have been moving six – the app figures that there's some sort of problem, and checks other users in the area. If they're moving too slowly as well, Waze puts up a notice on the map that there is a problem, awaiting confirmation by a user who reports it in. And users who provide reports get points, putting them at the top of the charts in the Waze world – providing an incentive for users to report information.

Waze was first implemented in Israel several years ago – and as a result, it currently has the most up to date maps available for free, since it constantly updates maps as users report road closings, construction, and new roads. Nowadays, Waze is used around the world, and is the only crowdsourcing traffic app around.

The idea for Waze originated years ago, when Ehud Shabtai, a software engineer with a degree in Philosophy and Computer Science from Tel Aviv University, was given a PDA with an external GPS device pre-installed with navigation software. Ehud's initial excitement quickly gave way to disappointment when he saw that the product didn't reflect the dynamic changes that characterize real conditions on the road, or have real-time info, like where speed traps were located. The company is funded by several VCs, and also generates income from advertising tie-ins (like roadside coffee shops). But Waze, the company says, will remain free – meaning that it won't cost you anything to save yourself lots of time on your commute!