Earlier this year the Florida Department of Transportation entered into a partnership with the traffic data company Waze. The Israeli startup, now owned by Google, lets “Wazers” use a smartphone app to report the location of crashes, congestion, potholes, road kill and police officers among many other things.
The agreement is purely a “data-sharing” partnership. Waze gets access to the stream of information produced by the road sensors FDOT uses to monitor traffic flow on Florida’s major highways. And FDOT gets access to the myriad reports filed by Wazers.
“Even the wealthiest states or cities, they can afford sensors in the roads, but they’re really reserved for the main roads,” says Di-Ann Eisnor, head of growth for Waze.
Instead of in-road sensors, Waze uses a smartphone’s GPS to produce an army of roaming surveyors, perpetually measuring traffic flow and reporting back. By getting a data-dump from Waze every couple of minutes, FDOT will now be able to check in on roads it couldn’t afford to cover with sensors, like US-1, SR 441 and Tamiami Trail, says Russell Allen, who works on FDOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) team. (For its part, Waze says FDOT’s data immediately increased its quality in Florida by 10 percent.)
Below: A data visualization of all accidents reported on I-95 during the month of November. The scale goes from green (the low end) to red (the high end). Created by Waze.
Waze is now in data-sharing agreements with about 20 public entities, ranging from the city government of Rio De Janeiro to the New York Police Department.
The Florida Department of Transportation was the second partner globally and the first in the United States. Among other things, Rio De Janeiro is using the Waze data to plan routes for its garbage trucks, according to Eisnor and the NYPD is giving Waze the locations of some of its traffic officers as a way to deter speeders before they see the police cars. (The NYPD did not respond to an interview request on the tactic.)
Waze gives credit to Florida’s outgoing Secretary of Transportation, Ananth Prasad, for forging the partnership. In an FDOT press release from May announcing the agreement, Prasad made clear some of his hopes for the program:
“As we saw during the recent heavy flooding in Florida’s panhandle, up-to-date traffic information is vital to letting the public know what roads and bridges are open and closed during a weather emergency. This data sharing is another example of a public-private partnership bringing together infrastructure experts and technical experts that will greatly benefit motorists.”
Di-Ann Eisnor said Waze tested a similar use-case when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. “We got a call from the White House, who said, 'We have no idea which gas stations are open... We don’t know how long the lines are. ... Is there any way that your users can help us figure out which gas stations are open?”
Waze sent a message to users in the area asking for help. Eisnor said they got about 10,000 responses. “And that’s what FEMA was able to use to figure where to route their fuel trucks.”
When asked about measures taken to protect the privacy of users, Eisnor said: “We don’t even go anywhere near a line that could violate anyone’s privacy.” She specified that Waze doesn’t collect identifiable information, including starting and ending points of Wazer trips.
Russell Allen said FDOT is concerned with real-time, in-the-moment traffic information. “We don’t really do much with patterns, collecting data,” he said.
Below a visualization of a day's worth of traffic in Miami put together by Waze and Google Data Arts team.