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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waze’s Maps Now Change as Roads Close

Even the best map is out of date the minute it is printed. But a new feature from Waze, a mobile app built on information gathered from its users’ phones, will be able to change the app’s maps in real time, reflecting temporary road closings as they happen.

Waze’s app automatically gathers information from drivers’ phones about traffic speed, then reroutes other drivers accordingly. With a stream of data from almost 40 million users, the app has been able to offer credible alternative routes to drivers based on traffic conditions in real time. But until recently the company’s system had no way of knowing if a road was closed completely, leaving a huge blind spot in its directions that mirrored a general problem with mapping apps.

“The idea of real time mapping in any case is kind of a stretch,” said Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski, a spokesman for Waze. “Stuff happens every single day. Maps change â€" they are living, breathing organisms. There are street fairs and roads get snowe in. Maps can’t handle this.”

To solve this, Waze decided to build on its system that awards points to users who allow the app to track their speed or who manually upload more detailed information.

When drivers come to a stop because of a road closing, they can now report it through the app and cite the type of disruption. Waze’s algorithms gather these reports, determining when the app can credibly say that a road is actually closed. The app requires multiple reports before declaring a road closed, and reports from users who have accrued more points in the past carry more weight than those from those with shorter histories on the app. Once Waze has said that a road is closed it routes other drivers around the obstruction. When Waze’s algorithms notice drivers using the road again, the system adjusts accordingly.

The idea comes from Waze’s experience in the days after Hurricane Sandy, when Waze worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify gas stations in! the New York area that had run dry. Drivers who showed up at such a gas station would post a message to Waze’s chat service. The company worked with Google Crisis Maps to gather and present these reports, and the resulting information helped the government plan how to deploy its refueling trucks.

Aside from providing its own app, Waze sees such partnerships with governments as a big part of its future.

In the months after Sandy, the company began working with Georgia’s Department of Transportation. Reports from Waze now supplement other traffic data to help create reports posted on electronic signs along the highways as well as on the department’s Web site. The company says it is in negotiations with several other transportation departments to do the same elsewhere.

“I think this is really the place and time when the functionality of social media is starting to shine. In terms of Waze, the more exchange we have with D.O.T.’s, the more effective and timely we believe their respone will be,” said Mr. Habdank-Kolaczkowski.