Why no Waze?

BitDepth#971 for January 13, 2015

A Waze live map for last Sunday morning, showing users on the move, speed trap submissions by drivers and slow moving traffic in Cascade. Inset is the user menu for the mobile software.
A Waze live map for last Sunday morning, showing users on the move, speed trap submissions by drivers and slow moving traffic in Cascade. Inset is the user menu for the mobile software.

The week before Christmas, I was on my way to St Joseph to visit a friend and realised that my last visit, years before, was but a dim memory.

I called to confirm my recollection of the way to the house, but got asked the kind of question I usually ask others.

“Why don’t you just use Waze?”

That prompted some serious introspection. Why don’t I use Waze?

It’s not as if I don’t know what it is. It’s been on my phone for more than two years, but I’ve tended to use it to look at traffic patterns, not plot my way to destinations, which really is its original purpose.

First a step back, if you haven’t yet made use of this fascinating mapping tool.

The company describes Waze on its home page as “the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app,” but Waze takes crowdsourcing to a new, category crushing level.

In an era before Waze, you bought a GPS finder, loaded it with maps for the place you were navigating (there were few for T&T) and used the intelligent mapping system to either plot a course to your destination or be guided with voice prompts turn by turn to where you were going.

It was a system that worked well for countries with detailed maps available, but it was expensive, because those maps had to be created and continuously updated with new information.

Waze flipped the idea upside down. Instead of a few people updating maps, why not let all the users do it?

When smartphone users began using Waze in T&T, the mapping was sparse, just the basic information you could get from any satellite based map system.

As the software became more popular and people began correcting map errors and adding information, it became not just more accurate, but more useful.

Which in turn drove a virtuous cycle, luring more users to download the app, making it even more useful.

Not only does Waze now tell you where you are going, it offers information that suggests where you shouldn’t.

Using fairly crude smartphone GPS tracking, the software is still able to guage the speeds of users while they drive, which in turn allows it to highlight traffic jams or slowdowns on local roads and highways.

This is not only useful for deciding on alternative routes, it’s also a good way to decide when it makes sense to scrap the idea of leaving in favour of just having a Carib instead.

Describing their app and service as operating within “the common good,” Waze states on their website that “By connecting drivers to one another, we help people create local driving communities that work together to improve the quality of everyone’s daily driving.”

“That might mean helping them avoid the frustration of sitting in traffic, cluing them in to a police trap or shaving five minutes off of their regular commute by showing them new routes they never even knew about.”

Given all this, you might be correct to wonder why anyone would avoid all this Waze goodness.

Filmmaker Renee Pollonais summed up my sentiments in twelve precise minutes in her 2008 short documentary Directions, but it’s something we all know, that delightful sense of communal confusion that’s prompted by the simple question, “Do you know the way to…”

What ensues is generally a colourful description of the local landscape, peppered with errant actual directions and social commentary on the current state of affairs in the area.

People confuse one corner with another, call a mango tree a soursop tree, reference landmarks that don’t exist anymore and send innocent drivers off on missions of adventure undreamed of.

Nowhere in T&T is that far from anywhere else, despite the efforts of Waze’s creators and users to map every quarter-mile post, but sometimes, getting artfully lost with narratively rich directions is as much fun as actually getting there.