Waze's Amir Mirzaee and Mona Weng talk about the GPS navigation app and how crowd-sourced traffic data can be a powerful tool.
IT is so easy to get directions to a place nowadays – where once we had to plan using a foldable map, you can now just fire up Waze on your smartphone to get real-time directions.
In fact, Malaysia is one of the top 10 countries with the largest user base – about 2.3 million Malaysians actively use the app, according to Amir Mirzaee, Waze business development lead for Asia Pacific, European Union and the United States.
Part of the success of Waze – apart from the fact that it’s free – is because it provides fairly accurate routing information that takes into account traffic conditions. Amazingly, almost all the data, including traffic and map updates, is gathered from users and this is done both actively and passively.
Users can report incidents and traffic jams through the app but the app also gathers info in the background (without user input) such as the number of users on the road and their driving speed so it knows which roads are jammed, and where rerouting has occurred. It’s a simple idea, but one that works very well especially in our country where road closures take place almost daily.
And Waze is not keeping the data to itself – historical traffic data is especially valuable to government agencies in building better roads.
“Before Waze, the only way governments could analyse traffic was by using CCTV cameras, which only give you an idea of the traffic situation in specific areas,” said Mirzaee.
Mirzaee said that the company is working with the Malaysian Government on a partnership programme, with a formal announcement expected in the next quarter. The two-way exchange, he said, would eventually help Waze make its maps better while helping the Government better deal with traffic problems.
There are drawbacks to the system – while it works very well in a busy city like Kuala Lumpur, in areas of the country where there are fewer Wazers (as users of the app are called), mapping data and points of interest can be less accurate.
Inaccuracies are inevitable but Mirzaee says Waze fixes the errors much faster than other apps, typically within 24 hours, thanks to its map editors. Waze allows anyone to become map editors but extensive editing rights are only given to “reliable” editors who move up a self-regulating ranking system.
Currently it has about 420,000 map editors worldwide; Malaysia has about 300 active editors. The company currently only has about 300 employees (up from 110 when it was first acquired by Google in 2013), so major changes to the app require time to implement.
For example, the app is still missing Junction View, a feature which shows users a graphical representation of the road to turn into when approaching a complicated fork in the road.
To build such a feature would require a major update and time, as map editors around the world will have to update the map with Junction View images. Meanwhile, the company says it has been listening to its users and will be providing customised local content where possible.
“We’re increasingly trying to have a hyper-local approach to our maps, by customising our maps to cater to the specific needs of every country,” said Mirzaee.
For example, in Brazil only cars with certain number plates are allowed into busy areas of the city. So the app allows users to enter their car plate numbers so that it won’t pick the routes that the car cannot enter.
In Malaysia, road closures are a problem and the team at Waze is working closely with local authorities and map editors to provide routing information which takes into account such closures and speed limits.
The company also runs a partnership programme where it shares information with local radio stations so broadcasters can share traffic information with commuters over the radio.