Waze, Crowd-Sourced Traffic App, Speeds Care to Crash Scenes but Shares Users’ Personal Data


Waze, the crowd-sourced traffic app, can help police and ambulance crews shave off vital minutes responding to car wrecks and may provide a blueprint for overhauling emergency responses, according to separate studies by researchers.

But the app’s benefits can also remove a driver’s privacy.

Founded by an Israeli company in 2007 and purchased by Google in 2013 for nearly $1 billion after a reported bidding war with Facebook, Waze uses GPS navigation data to track the movements of drivers and suggests the best routes on the road. Its maps can by updated by individual users to improve accuracy.

But unlike other smartphone app services like Google Maps and MapQuest, Waze also integrates additional social networking capabilities, allowing drivers to share information about car wrecks, speed traps, road work, filling stations, potholes and the whereabouts of police officers.

It turns out that using fellow drivers as crowd-sourcesOpens a new window of information is one of the best ways for first-responders and police officers to find out about road collisions in nearly real time, according to a studyOpens a new window published in the medical journal JAMA Surgery.

Faster than Law Enforcement

The researchers from the University of California system compared car-wreck data collected from Waze users and the California Highway Patrol and concluded that the crowd-sourced drivers notified the app about 2 ½ minutes before anyone alerted the highway patrol.

“If these methods can cut the response time down by between 20 to 60%, then it’s going to have the positive clinical impact,” Sean Young, a UC medical professor and director of the Institute for Prediction Technology, said.

Young noted, “It’s generally agreed upon that the faster you get into the emergency room, the better the clinical outcome will be.”

Predicting Car Crashes

The Waze information could also be used to identify probable future accident locations, according to another study by Department of Transportation researchersOpens a new window .

That study combined crowd-sourced data from Waze with crash data provided by Maryland law enforcement authorities and used machine-learning techniques with the datasets to train statistical models to predict crashes.

The DOT researchers said the models produced an early indicator of crash risk. In other words, the models identified where crashes might occur before they do.

The department is funding additional research into the project.

What if There’s No Crash?Meanwhile, Waze executives are working with a Silicon Valley technology company called Rapid SOS to send crowd-sourced data to first responders about wrecks in real time.

Waze said that both users of its smartphone app and 911 call centers connected with Rapid SOS will receive live collision data to give traffic an advance warning of accidents.

But some researchers question the accuracy of crowd-sourced date to roll emergency vehicles to every scene reported by Waze users. What if a crash is not serious enough to warrant dispatch of an ambulance or police officer, they ask, or even if the accident did not really happen?

Any time a Waze user reports a fender-bender that does not cause injury or serious property damage and police departments respond to the call, then thin police resources are diverted needlessly from crime investigation and prevention as well as other duties.

‘A Privacy Nightmare’

There are also privacy concernsOpens a new window related to Waze.

The app requires users to provide personal information, including a real name and contact information. Those who want to use the Waze app anonymously or who use assumed names are penalized.

Waze in turn sells location data to advertisers who can send the users promotions any time they drive by a particular landmark, roadhouse or motel.

Users also agree to have their location tracked by the company, and any data collected on their driving practices or locationOpens a new window is stored permanently. In addition, Waze can provide the police with data on an individual driver.

“The app is a privacy nightmare,” says journalist Andrew Couts.

It’s simply too easy to reveal too much about yourself,” Couts says, “not to mention all the data Waze might share about you without your explicit knowledge. In fact, after reading the company’s terms and privacy policy, I immediately deleted the app, and will never use it again.

“But if you don’t care about people knowing massive amounts of information about your personal travels, by all means, use Waze,” he says. “Consider yourself warned.”