Data-Smart City Solutions


By Noah Stern

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard and left damage and chaos in its wake. The response plan of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) included delivering fuel to lessen the widespread gas shortages, but they had no easy way to determine which gas stations still had power or where gas was most needed. They turned to Waze, asking for help gathering resident-submitted reports on gas stations. Within the hour, Waze set up a simple form; over 10,000 responses successfully allowed FEMA to make a refueling plan. Through its partnership in this time of crisis, Waze realized its platform was uniquely positioned to help governments solve their pressing data needs.

Creating shared value

Waze, owned by Google, describes itself as a community-based traffic and navigation app where drivers share real-time traffic and road information via their smartphones. In late 2014, Waze launched the Connected Citizens program, allowing a growing list of cities and states from around the world to partner with Waze at no financial cost. The partnerships are two-way exchanges of information. Waze shares data about traffic jams, automatically collected from drivers via the app, and also shares user-reported traffic issues, such as accidents and potholes. In return, partnering governments share information about road closures and traffic incidents, helping develop even better route options for drivers.

City and state governments can also save money by partnering with Waze. Collecting traffic data can be expensive, and although cities have road sensors and traffic cameras deployed on many major roads, covering every residential street can be a challenge. The Waze partnership can be an easy way for a department of transportation to expand its view of its roads and streets, completely free of charge.  

Waze sees the Connected Citizens program as a way to grow and improve its services. The data Waze receives from cities allows for even more accurate inputs to complex traffic algorithms. While crowdsourcing has proven reliable, information about street closures and upcoming maintenance from cities allows Waze to get ahead of user-submitted data. Waze also plans to use city data to route drivers around trash collection and leverage the fleet-tracking technology used by some cities.

In recent years, Waze has received some criticism from city officials, and the fast-growing company is looking for methods to improve government relations. The most common complaint comes from police departments, who disapprove of Waze’s feature that allows drivers to identify speed traps. Police argue it allows drivers to game the system, but Waze counters that both parties have the same goal: encouraging safe driving.

As with all technology companies, the fight for users is fierce. Partnering with cities also allows Waze to expand its market penetration. With the growth in ride-sharing apps and the pending introduction of self-driving cars, the company that can provide the most accurate traffic and street data will have a competitive edge. Public-private partnerships between cities and traffic-related companies are still in their early stages, but the increased competition should lead to even more innovation and improvements in product offerings.

Successful partnerships

City governments can use Waze's data to reduce traffic with strategic and informed management of traffic signals. There are 550 intersections in Boston that can be controlled from the city’s central Traffic Management Center, and Boston can now uses Waze’s real-time data to change those traffic signals as needed to unclog congested routes. When traffic lights do change, the information alters the suggested routes that are sent to Waze users, creating a reinforcing cycle of data sharing to cut down on commute times. For commuters, this is a win-win.

In Rio de Janeiro, city officials have had similar success. The partnership began in 2013, when Waze was asked to help the city monitor road conditions during a visit by Pope Francis. The Waze API is now completely embedded in the city’s Control Center and helps with day-to-day monitoring of road conditions. City officials in Rio were also able to change the garbage routes, determine where to install cameras, and deploy traffic personnel. Furthermore, the implementation process was simple for the staff in Rio’s transportation department. Pedro Junqueira, the head of Rio’s operations center, explains in this video how their operations center was able to integrate Waze’s information two weeks after an initial phone call. To streamline integration, Waze partners can retrieve data via an XML or JSON feed, or use Waze’s custom interface called the “Traffic View Tool.”

Washington, D.C. demonstrated another creative type of partnership when the city used Waze to supports its “war on potholes” in spring 2015. The Department of Transportation called the campaign “Potholeapalooza” and asked users to submit information about potholes via Waze. The city reported that in the first quarter of the year, it identified 11,000 potholes via conventional reporting means, such as 311 calls. But after less than a month of the Potholeapalooza campaign, the city had received 10,000 pothole reports through Waze. D.C. leveraged its 650,000 Waze users to prove that the crowdsourcing approach to finding potholes is more effective, and more efficient.

Waze continues to actively expand, and has stated that it prioritizes partners with both a willingness to innovate and the technical capabilities necessary to share data within the program. Interested partners can find more information and apply on the Connected Citizens website.

About the Author

Noah Stern

Noah Stern is currently a joint degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. Noah’s work experience includes several years working as an Associate Consultant with Bain & Company in San Francisco; and as an Economic Development Associate for the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a major in Political Economy.


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