Waze: Social GPS or Sensor Network In Sheep’s Clothing?

When Apple released its iOS6 upgrade last year, I was one of the people criticizing Apple for its failure to deliver a usable app for mapping. I didn’t realize at the time the extent of this bungle. Apple not only missed out on providing users with a usable app, but it also missed out on all of the rich sensory data that comes when a user is driving or walking around with their mapping app open, even in the background. (Apple probably has some other way to collect this data, however, so it may not be that big of a deal for them.)

My first reaction when my go-to mapping platform failed me was to find a new one. I settled on Waze. Now, I had a Waze account before this, and had used it a few times, but never to the extent I did after the maps fiasco. As I began to rely more and more on features of the Waze map, I found some things I wanted to change: locations of red-light cameras, incorrectly defined one-way streets, and streets that were disconnected, to name a few. Allowing end-users to  maintain the map is one of Waze’s most brilliant features.

This feature however leaked some rather important information to me: one extent of the Waze sensor network. As I got into editing the map, I found that I could expose the actual GPS sensory data in visual form as path information of users who had driven on those map tiles.

What does a global sensor network look like in terms of the vectors of speed and direction? Let me show you a little example from my neighborhood:

The colorful lines represent visualizations of individual GPS tracks over time.

The colorful lines represent visualizations of individual GPS tracks over time.

Notice how the satellite imagery that we’re all used to seeing in our mapping applications has another layer atop it: the routes of Waze users. This repository of data is vast, continuously growing, and incredibly valuable. Waze is not just a helpful turn-by-turn replacement for Google or Apple Maps, it is one of the largest sensor networks available.

This sensor network contains more than 20 million endpoints, each contributing to its deep repository of path information. As of last summer they had raised over $67 million in VC funding. What is the asset here? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the maps.

Waze’s biggest asset is its irrevocable sublicensable right to the GPS paths that you generate each time you have the app running. Right now they’re exposing simple path information like “the number of Wazers passing your business each day.” The next step: how many of those Wazers stopped at your competitor? How many stops were made before they stopped at you? What other apps were running on the phone while you were driving around?

Pinning ads to the map is nothing compared to the value that’s going to come from this level of analytics. I believe that this level of knowledge of consumer behavior is unprecedented. And they’re just getting started. All it will take is a little more data captured from each endpoint in their sensor network, and the value of their asset – the data – will skyrocket.

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