08/07/2012 12:24 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

The App That Turns Traffic into a Game

On a recent car trip from Caesarea to Tel Aviv. a family member of mine pulled out his Android device, launched the app "Waze" (also available for iPhone), entered the address and off we went. Knowing that the price of GPS apps from companies like Garmin and TomTom run in the $40 to $70 dollar range, I was shocked to hear that Waze was completely free (much like Google Maps) and offers turn-by-turn GPS functionality with a fascinating twist.


Israeli drivers are insane.

This isn't a scientific fact, but rather a commonly held belief with the rest of the world (and, by some Israelis). This small strip of land in the Middle East is notorious for edgy drivers who will honk you to get moving long before the light even turns green. On a recent trip, I found myself late at night heading from Caesarea to Tel Aviv. Giving my family member the address for the apartment where I was staying, I just figured he would pump the directions into his GPS. Instead, he pulled out his Android device, launched the app Waze (also available for iPhone), entered the address and off we went. Knowing that the price of GPS apps from companies like Garmin and TomTom run in the $40 to $70 dollar range, I was shocked to hear that Waze was completely free (much like Google Maps) and offers turn-by-turn GPS functionality with a fascinating twist.

GPS only works if we're all actively updating it.

It would be enough if the GPS was simply free and worked. It would be enough if Waze just had the beautiful and simple interface that it has (which includes alternate routing, estimated time of arrival, touch scrolling to get a feel for the area, and much more). What makes Waze unique is the gamification and social aspect of it. The company tagline is "outsmarting traffic, together," and that is -- exactly -- what this Israeli startup has in mind.

As soon as you enter your coordinates, you suddenly see other Waze users all over the map, and these people are actively updating everyone with information about traffic, where police are located (and you can identify them as visible or hidden), accident reports, road hazards, locations of cameras, map issues and even gas prices. Within each category is a limited selection to add a layer of detail.

So, for example, if you're interested in notifying everyone of traffic, you can choose moderate, heavy or standstill. If you're a passenger, you can type in a message (typing is blocked for safety reasons) and you can even notify others if it's just in your lane. You can also take a picture (only useful if your smartphone is secured through a holder that is attached to your window). Lastly, Waze -- like many new and up coming apps -- leverages some for the newer smartphone technology to add depth. In this instance, the smartphone and Waze is also able to let you know how fast you're travelling, so when you select traffic, the app automatically attaches your average speed at that point to the social data.

Context adds major layers of depth to content.

Waze is also able to learn and add context -- which makes the app a powerful utility. After driving to work and home a couple of times, I fired up the app after work the other day, and it asked me if I was heading home because it was tracking and learning my habits. It was also able to learn my own, special route home -- which was impressive. On top of that, Waze has layers of gamification awarding points and status for how often (and correct) a driver is with their reporting, and for how much distance they travel using Waze. From a commercial standpoint, Waze offers "in the moment" deals in certain geographic regions that include drop-in specials and the like. While the app has yet to have major adoption in North America, watching it work with a near-critical mass in Israel made me stop and wonder why everyone, everywhere doesn't help make the frustration of car travel that much easier by getting on the Waze bandwagon?

Creating greener roads.

As if Waze wasn't interesting enough, Technology Review recently published an article titled, An App That Could Stop Traffic, that looked at Greenway app. Developed by Christian Bruggemaan and two of his friends at University, the 25-year-old is taking the concept of Waze and Google Maps that much further by testing an app that will prevent traffic from occurring in the first place. According to the article:

"The app offers users two routes to their destination: a standard shortest one and a traffic-optimized Greenway one, along with the approximate amount of time and fuel it would take to get there using each. If you choose the Greenway path, the app will ping Greenway's server every 30 seconds with your GPS location to determine if the current route is still the best- -- a decision made based on knowledge about your location and speed and information about other Greenway users on the road. Greenway assumes each street has a certain capacity based on its length, number of lanes, and speed limit, Brüggemann says, and reserves slots for participating drivers, directing cars so a road never reaches maximum capacity. If a jam does occur -- which Greenway would detect by looking at your average speed -- the app will react by rerouting drivers."

Currently, the app is being used and tested in Munich, Germany.

Smarter cities.

These apps are not about outsmarting a speeding ticket or getting somewhere faster. Technology is a tool best suited to help us become better global citizens. The implications of this technology stretches far beyond our ability to get to work on time, and into the realm of sustainability and livability. With more and more people moving to cities (or being born there), we are quickly in need of more resources in much smaller and more compact areas. Waze and Greenway demonstrate that by helping one another through information sharing and leveraging that information through technology, it can make all of us smarter, more effective and better global citizens. That being said, please keep both hands on the wheel at all times and your eyes on the road. None of this works effectively if we're all suddenly not paying attention to the road in front of us and causing more accidents and problems.

What's your take: do you think apps like this are smart or a dangerous distraction?

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image -- an award-winning digital marketing agency. HIs first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly-successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His next book, CTRL ALT DEL, will be published in Spring 2013.