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Waze: A volunteered, social sort of surveillance?

Waze, which has reportedly been acquired by Google, is basically a GPS app. Punch in your destination and it gives turn-by-turn directions.

What makes Waze stand out is that it gives real-time traffic information by asking users to volunteer their locations, said Chris Silva, an analyst at the Altimeter Group.

Let’s say Waze notices you’re going five miles an hour on the freeway.

“It’ll actually ask me, 'hey are you in traffic, report your traffic status now,'” Silva says. “If I see an accident or a speed trap I can report that information and it all gets compiled in a database.”

That database gets shared with the other Waze users. This fact is what makes Waze's form of gathering data, crowdsourcing, different than ... oh, the kind of gathering involved in PRISM. 

For one thing, the process is transparent, said Andreas Weigend, who directs the Social Data Lab at Stanford. He adds that users have to feel like they’re getting something useful back.

“People understand in order to get real-time traffic information, you need to give information,” Weigend said.  

It’s that give and take Google is trying to get more of, which is one reason it’s interested in Waze. Google wants to make its map more social by getting users to contribute information about what restaurants they like and where their meeting friends. Then Google can sell ads against it.

Altimeter’s Chris Silva says that the news of PRISM and Google’s involvement in turning over data to the government might put a chill on Waze’s crowdsourcing efforts.

“When they come under the Google umbrella, I think for a certain portion of users, they may start wondering well where does this data end up?” he said. If under Google’s watch, Waze users might get more watching than they signed up for.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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