Get Real-Time, Social Driving Directions with Waze

6371619037_fd8e11ba7f_bWhen I was planning to move to Atlanta for graduate school, one of the first things that I bought was an atlas for the United States. How else, in 2002, was I going to know how to get from one state to another? When I finally got to Atlanta, the very first thing I did was drive to a CVS to buy an umbrella and a big multi-page map of the city. In 2007, when I was attending my second MLA conference in Chicago, I went with a small folder full of printed-off directions from Google Maps to help me get from the train to my hotel, to my interview hotel, and so on and so forth.

Of course, in 2013 I’m like many people and leave the house without directions ever. The GPS that we got in 2009 has long since been replaced with the maps on my phone, and I regularly arrive in new cities without ever having looked at a map and still manage to get where I’m going. Indeed, I get there a lot faster than I would have if I’d used the paper map that they still proffer me at the rental car counter. Both the Google Maps app and the oft-maligned Apple Maps have yet to steer me wrong. Despite that, I recently switched my primary mapping tool; 95% of the time these days I’m using Waze.

Waze is a social mapping and driving app. Available for iOSAndroid, and—believe it or not—Windows phones, it provides directions to get you from point A to B. But rather than simply looking at what the most efficient route is according to the miles you need to drive and the speed limits of those roads, Waze also adds in the data of all the other Waze users (Wazers) in the area. By considering how fast each of those other cars are moving, Waze can calculate very accurately how long it a given route will take. Indeed, when traffic starts piling up ahead of me, it will change the route that it suggests I drive on the fly.

What this means is that Waze is a tool that you can use not just when you’re going someplace you haven’t been before but on a daily basis as you drive your daily commute, as it should be able to help you find the most efficient way to get you where you’re going. While Waze will pull the data it needs to improve from your speed and location, but you can update it with other information as you drive: road hazards, traffic jams, police locations, traffic cameras, gas prices, and accident reports. And since Waze doesn’t really want you to be one of those accidents, you can send all those reports without using your hands. Like many location-based apps, Waze will give you points and you can level up. But it’s a small part of the experience and totally unnecessary.

So Waze is social in the sense that it draws its power from other users near you. But you can also connect the application to Facebook to find your friends and see when they’re driving. That’s kind of useless, I’d say. But what is tremendously useful is the ability to send your route to someone via SMS or email. Your addressee will get your destination and your estimated time of arrival (and Waze is scary good at estimating that time). But your message will also include a link that will allow them to see your current location, updated in real time.

I use this feature regularly when I’m driving home in the evenings, to let my family know where I am. But I also used it when I recently was traveling to a campus to give a talk. When I got in the cab, I sent a link to my host. He was able to see where I was as I moved across New York’s boroughs, and once I was on campus, he could continue to see where I was as I walked toward our agreed upon meeting location. If after sharing your route with someone you decide that you don’t want to be tracked, it’s just one click to stop sharing your location.

I’d like to think that I’ve explained Waze pretty well at this point, but since they made a video that does the same thing in 90 seconds, this might be a good place to deploy it.

If I was going to offer any criticisms of Waze, it would be that it’s only useful for those who need driving directions. If you want public transit information, it’s completely useless. It’s also not as good as Google Maps at finding a location based on a name (like “Atlanta airport”). But you can search Google Maps, Yelp, Foursquare, and other location services from within the app itself, so that problem solves itself.

Finally, it’s worth noting that you’re of course providing Waze with a lot of information and that they are going to be monetizing that information. There are occasional ads based on my location, but they disappear after about 5 seconds and only take up about 20% of the screen and don’t interfere with driving directions. But there must be some potential for monetization since Google acquired Waze in June 2013 for something just shy of $1 billion.

All in all, Waze has proved really useful to me over the past few months. Since it’s free, it’s worth a look!

What’s your preferred tool for getting driving directions? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: directions / CC BY 2.0

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