Crowdsourcing Your Commute

Drivers help each other through traffic with the navigation app Waze

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screenshot of waze.com

Nobody knows how bad traffic is better than the person stuck in traffic. Channeling that driver's misery into another's gain is the theory behond Waze, a free navigation app that just might be the best of its kind. Unlike guidance programs that rely solely on computer algorithms, Waze uses live feedback from its network of drivers to generate a dynamic real-time traffic report, and adjusts its route recommendations accordingly.

For starters, Waze has all the elements of a first-class GPS. device. You can enter a destination and receive a choice of routes. As you drive a particular route over time, Waze learns your preferences and takes them into consideration for future trips. The guidance itself is presented on a 3D-style map and accompanied by spoken, turn-by-turn directions. The screen also tracks your speed, your remaining distance, and the time to your destination.

But Waze distinguishes itself from the standard, static route navigator by gaining intelligence as more users drive. Simply by turning on the app and hitting the road, users contribute GPS information to the central Waze system. That process creates smarter, live maps of an area or road and helps Waze offer you the most informed route guidance available at the time. If a neighbor who left the house 10 minutes earlier is sitting in traffic on the same route you plan to take now, for instance, Waze displays a red line that indicates the severity of the congestion:

To accompany these automated traffic reports, Waze also lets users input incidents they encounter along their ride: accidents, construction, speed traps, even obstacles in the road. If you're completely stuck in traffic you can enter details about the delay or snap a photo of it. If the car's in motion, however, Waze disables typing to guard against distracted driving — a surefire way, intentional or not, to win the endorsement of Ray LaHood.

Altogether this input creates a trustworthy portrait of your commute before you reach the end of the driveway. Tech reporters who have tried the app have been impressed. Waze recently took Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle on a freeway route to Rice University that ended up being far more efficient than the surface-street course suggested by Google Maps. It surprised Pete Carey of the San Jose Mercury News by finding an entirely new route to an area he had been traveling for years.

Waze launched in 2009 in Israel but is now based in Silicon Valley. Its popularity rose a bit when it helped drivers avoid the so-called "carmageddon" scare in Los Angeles this summer. Earlier this fall it launched a redesigned interface that's clean and could even be described as cute.

In a head-to-head trial with another navigation app, Trapster, Robert Scoble of Business Insider gave Waze the clear edge because it's "innovating faster … and has more users." This last point is critical, because users, after all, are the source of Waze's strength. The more people logging miles on Waze, the smarter it becomes. That network is now reportedly 2 million strong in the United States, with some 8 million users around the world sitting in traffic so you might not have to.

Screenshot from Waze.com

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