I recently tried out Waze, “the world’s fastest-growing community-based traffic and navigation app.” The smart phone app enables drivers to easily share real-time traffic and road information, “saving everyone time and gas money on their daily commute.” Waze is quite possibly the most successful live, crowdsourced mapping platform there is. Over 30 million drivers use the app to “outsmart traffic and get everyone the best route to work and back, every day.”
Why is Waze so successful? Because the creators of this app recognize full well that “Traffic is more than just red lines on the map.” Likewise, Crisis Mapping is also more than just dots on the map. But unlike Waze, groups like Ushahidi have not adopted dynamic geo-fencing features (despite my best efforts back in 2011). With Waze, drivers get automatically alerted before they approach police, accidents, road hazards or traffic jams, all shared by other drivers in real time. “It’s like a personal heads-up from a few million of your friends on the road.” The creators of Waze have also integrated gaming and social networking features into their app, something I also lobbied Ushahidi to do years ago. Not only is updating Waze super easy and fast to update, it is also fun and rewarding—which reminds me of the “Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping.”
Just like drivers on the motorway, humanitarians do not have the time to keep watching and analyzing dots on a map. They have to keep their hands “on the wheel” and focus on the more important tasks at hand. Crisis Mapping platforms therefore have to be hands-free and more voice-based to limit the distraction of tactile data entry. In other words, the interface needs to become invisible. As computing pioneer Mark Weiser noted, “The best technology should be invisible, get out of your way, and let you live your life.” My colleague Amber Case add that “We shouldn’t have to fiddle with interfaces. We should be humans; machines should be machines; each amplifying the best of both. Wouldn’t that make for a nice reality?” This is what Waze is doing by integrating very neat user-interface features and voice-based controls, which improve situational awareness and facilitates real-time decision-making.
In conclusion, Waze’s clever user-centered design features are also relevant to map-based development and human rights projects in the majority world (i.e. developing countries). Otherwise, the value of digital maps is more like that of news articles—that is, informative but not necessarily operational and actionable for local decision-making purposes.