Data about road conditions matters – from identifying accident hotspots to better understanding how and why traffic patterns change, to processing and helping action pothole reports, or locating areas affected by severe weather conditions. According to Finlay Clark, head of Waze UK, those with access to this data have the power to completely revolutionise the flow of traffic within a city.

Better planning and responsiveness has come from investments made by cities that use advanced systems to help them understand traffic challenges. But for most cities or authorities, this type of information is not available. It is often expensive and doesn’t cover a broad enough area to make it viable. However, a much more cost-effective and perhaps efficient option is for cities is to use data that comes from cars on the roads.

Making dumb cars smart

Some of the 947 million to 1.1 billion cars on the road around the world contain sensors that can deliver information on the roads they travel, but most don’t. What these hundreds of millions of cars do have though, is a driver who probably has a smartphone. In fact, with 2.4 billion smartphones now in use worldwide (or two for every car on the road), there’s a new way that apps can be leveraged to make cars smarter and deliver useful data to cities and transport authorities.

Waze initially launched as FreeMap Israel in 2006 as a community project to create a free digital database of the map of Israel in Hebrew in 2008. The proliferation of smartphones was the catalyst for Waze to disrupt the SatNav sector.

It crowd sourced information about roads from its community and added gamification to reward users they more they used the app. By encouraging drivers to spend more time using Waze for their regular journeys, rather than just for longer drives, Waze receives real-time traffic details by enabling users to submit reports about issues on the roads safely.

As a result of the app’s popularity, cities around the world saw that Waze was helping to distribute traffic more evenly which is why, in 2014, Waze launched its Connected Citizens Program (CCP).

Connected citizens change the game

CCP is offered as a free data exchange where city authorities, emergency services and research groups can access incident reports about road conditions, traffic, accidents and alerts. CCP also lets cities enter information about planned road closures, events and changes to help Waze remain up to date and as close to real-time as possible. Starting with just ten city partners four years ago, more than 600 cities, municipalities and departments of transportation are now part of the program.

In many instances, Waze data acts as an early warning system that picks up issues even before other more sophisticated systems are able to. For example, when Israel’s national emergency authority integrated Waze data into its live geographic information system during a trial, Magen David Adom (Israel’s only national medical emergency, disaster, ambulance and blood service) responders arrived 10-15% faster than equivalent authorities.

A more recent project with the European Emergency Number Association saw Waze data trialled in France, Austria and Italy. EENA found was that events were flagged in the Waze feed about 30 minutes earlier than in the established system.

Help during natural disasters

Finlay Clark

During natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, Waze data has been leveraged to help send 2.4 million messages to users about shelters, road closures and gas shortages to during the crisis. The platform, which worked with Google Crisis Response, the Federal Emergency Management Association, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas Navy, and other CCP partners, saw 154 shelters added leading to over 54,000 clicks and 1,251 navigations. The Waze Map editor community, who volunteer their time to keep their local areas up-to-date, also stepped in to report 2,500 road closures.

While today’s ultimate aimis to have sensor-laden, driverless cars, we’re still many years away from that future. Right now, services like Waze not only help drivers save time and money but help city partners by providing free access to data. As cities are becoming more interconnected and reliant on technology, making sure rich, reliable data is available, whether it’s on the ground or beyond, will help revolutionise transport as we know it.

The author of this blog is Finlay Clark, head of Waze UK

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