Space & Innovation

Smartphone vs Snow: Crowdsource Your Drive

When heavy weather descends, smartphone apps like Waze can empower your phone to help you on the wintry roads. Continue reading →

If you plan to do any driving in the next few days between the Carolinas and New England, things are going to suck, quite frankly. The massive East Coast blizzard attacking the mid-Atlantic is expected to snarl traffic in dozens of cities and make driving treacherous anywhere along its path.

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The good news for us anxious motorists? We have access to remarkably powerful information technology these days, via our smartphones. Mapping programs like Google Maps and Apple Maps have become everyday tools for many of us, turning our phones into helpful navigators - especially when the weather outside is frightful.

In a situation like our current wintry mess, the real commodity becomes real-time information on road conditions. That's where the handy little technology and app known as Waze comes in. Originally developed in Israel, Waze is a GPS-based mapping and navigation program, similar to Google Maps or Apple Maps, with turn-by-turn driving directions, etc.

But Waze is driven, so to speak, by a fundamentally different and wildly successful technology. Unlike traditional mapping programs, Waze relies primarily on crowdsourcing to generate real-time data on traffic jams, road conditions and driving hazards.

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Every Waze user contributes road and traffic data passively, simply by having the app active on their phone - the system logs speed and location as you drive. But users are also encouraged to actively contribute information on specific road conditions. The system uses videogame-style elements to reward drivers for reporting a location-specific road hazard, traffic jam or fender-bender.

The more Waze users that are active in a given area, the more effective the system. And there are a lot of Waze users - millions in the U.S. alone. The Waze system collates massive amounts of information from users over its network, in real time, and while the technology itself is rather complex, the upshot is simple: You can get remarkably accurate and up-to-the-minute information on road conditions - on your phone, as you're driving, 24-7.

Waze isn't the only place to get crowdsourced road conditions via your smartphone. In fact, it's not even the only place to get Waze. Google acquired the company back in 2013 and has been incorporating the technology into its own Google Maps for a couple of years now. Apple is also believed to be gradually implementing similar technology into Apple Maps.

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You can also find plenty of online roundups of traffic apps, mostly for Android and iOS. But Waze in the consensus champion in this arena, by far. It's free to download and compatible with iOS, Android, Windows Phone and some versions of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile.

Crowdsourced mapping is a technology to keep in mind - News You Can Use style - if you must brave the roads this weekend. Safe travels.

Don't let old man winter get the best of you.