When Apple released its underwhelming Maps app in 2012, turn-by-turn GPS navigation app Waze became the maps solution for untold numbers of disgruntled iPhone users. Waze isn’t your average maps app: It crowdsources real-time traffic and accident data so users don’t sit impatiently on the highway any longer than they need to (and they can feel good about helping all the cars behind them).
This week, Waze is going a step further, allowing users to close off roads that are under construction, flooded, have a five-car pileup—any road that’s closed in real life, Waze users will be able to close in the map, giving them the power to change maps in real time to reflect reality. Not even Google Maps can do that.
The idea for real-time road closing came after Hurricane Sandy, when the White House challenged Waze to find a solution to notify users when gas stations were open and available (gas was often difficult to come by in the storm’s aftermath). Waze quickly figured out a way for its users to report and share gas station conditions—information that was shared with Google’s Crisis Maps.
After being pulled into a crisis that was shifting by the minute, Waze thought of the real-time road block mapping idea. After all, emergencies and construction zones shift the way our maps should look constantly throughout the day, but no mapping service can afford to send vans out 24/7.
The road closing feature is easy to use, but it’s backed by some complex algorithms. If a driver comes to a road closure, they can report it in the app. But the Waze algorithm will only mark it closed after a certain number of drivers ranked highly in the app have also reported it—a measure to prevent spam and ensure that reports are correct. "A rank is a trust score. Very few people with a high trust score are needed to close a road, but more with a low trust score would have to do it," explains Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze’s VP of platforms and partnerships. When a road opens back up, Waze’s algorithms can sense that people are driving over it and remove the roadblock.
Right now, the feature is limited to Waze’s users. But the service is already working with the Georgia Department of Transportation (and is in talks with a number of other cities) to share some of the data emerging from its approximately 40 million users. "We have information that people have desperately wanted to collect," says Eisnor.