Every month, 13 million French people use Waze to get around. An absolute reference in navigation applications, Waze has been able to seduce by its ability to anticipate problems on the road. Closed lanes, accidents or traffic jams… the application collects a maximum amount of information in real time to save you time, all for free. Few people are unhappy with Waze, as evidenced by the comments on the App Store and the Play Store, which are close to excellence.
Yet few users know the secret of the Waze world map. If you thought that the company recruited the best cartographers in the world to achieve this level of quality, you are severely mistaken. This titanic work is the work of a community of passionate volunteers; the company does not manage its card in any way. On a trip to Waze’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, 01net.com was able to meet the people without whom Waze would not be nearly as effective. We tell you the incredible workings of this company.
Mapping the world from a blank map is the crazy project that the founders of Waze launched in 2008. Created in Israel shortly after the birth of the iPhone and Android, it uses the GPS chip in smartphones to analyze the way people drive. Based on the movements of its first users, the company developed an algorithm capable of automatically drawing roads on a blank map. There is no need to send experts into the field, everything is done automatically.
Of course, one algorithm is not enough to cover the whole world. Rather than using another map fund to get the missing information (like OpenStreetMap for example), Waze decided to play the community card. To make as many people as possible want to participate in his project, Fej Shmuelevitz, known today as Waze’s very first employee, had the idea of creating a kind of planetary competition. “We started handing out goodies, makinggames,” he explains. A point system is then created to encourage people to get more involved. Each modification of the map yields one. For example, during a competition, “whoever scored the most points won an iPad”. Everything has been done to make people want to participate in this gigantic project, namely to create the first free GPS that is updated several times an hour. This point system also made it possible to sort community members according to six different grades. The higher you are in the chessboard, the more you can change the card.
You get it, Waze isn’t just a user-enhanced GPS. The content of the app is created entirely by a community, in charge of all additions and moderation. Using the Map Editortool, Waze fans can draw roads, add stores, tour gas stations (to update prices) and check for changes in others themselves. Waze has achieved a stroke of genius by only taking over the management of the technical part of the application. The rest is offered to him free of charge and improves every day as if by magic. “Creating a world map would have cost millions of dollars, we got it for free” says Fej.
Several years later, Waze established itself as one of the biggest success stories of the new application economy. In Israel, newspapers make daily headlines about the potential sale of its nugget, which would a priori interest big names like Apple, Microsoft or Google. In the end, it’s the last one who wins the jackpot. Waze joins the Google portfolio in 2013 and begins chapter 2 of its history.
After this episode, logic would have dictated that the Waze volunteer community should have withdrawn from the application and left the place to Google’s engineers. Why work for free for such a giant company as Google, which already has a powerful mapping service and has little to do with the original start-up? While a few rebels have indeed left the ship, the pillars of the community have remained loyal to Waze and continue to work for free every day to improve the service. The company promises them that nothing will change and that the application will continue to get better. For the time being, they seem to believe in it and the brand keeps its commitments.
It should be noted that Waze and Google are currently two independent companies. Waze has kept his own map and does not use any data from Google Maps, except for his satellite imagery in the editor. However, the reverse is not entirely true. Google may pick up information about Waze… based on community reports. Geographically, the Israeli company has moved into the Google building in Tel Aviv but has its own floors. Some employees are also in the United States or in other countries such as Ukraine.
On forums, messaging applications and social networks, members of the Waze community communicate very regularly. Some of them mastered the application so well that some Waze employees even told us they were sometimes lost! From time to time, and for almost a decade for some, they have been getting together at local events called “meetups” to think about aspects of the application that can be improved. By working together on the same city for several days in a row, it is indeed easier not to miss anything. This is what they call“Operation Commando”.
Since the arrival of Google, Waze’s budget has grown. As a result, the company organizes what it calls “Mega Meetup” every two years. This is the event we attended in Tel Aviv on the weekend of 21 and 22 September 2019. Approximately 70 community members from around the world were treated to an all-expenses-paid visit to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as about 10 sessions with Waze employees. They were presented with the company’s future plans and requirements, such as collecting prices for all tolls in France. Yes, you’re not dreaming, it’s the community volunteers who have to take care of these kinds of tasks.
To our surprise, this kind of request does not seem to bother community members. Everyone we met agreed that they were “passionate” about their work at Waze. Five French people were present at this Mega Meetup 2019 as well as other French speakers from Switzerland or Belgium.
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Registered since 2010, Matthieu (Kpouer sur Waze) sees the application as a hobby. His hours spent on Waze vary according to his free time. “It can go from 0 to 12-13 hours a week, or even about 20 hours during holidays” explains this IT developer. Arrived on Waze at the very beginning, he explains having been seduced by the possibility of editing the map and admits to being a great fan of open-source. As the eighth largest French contributor, he spends most of his time managing the comments of the online community and editing some African routes, a sector to which he is particularly attached. This summer, he tells us that he spent much of his time collecting toll fees, which is extremely laborious, given the complexity of the French system.
Marc (milkyway35) and Lionel (no1ne) are also among the pioneers of the French Wazosphere. Both of them have been present since 2010, yet they have very different profiles. The first is a computer engineer and spends two hours a week animating the French networks of the application, the second works in the sailmaker’s shop and dedicates 4-5 hours a week to Waze. At the time very focused on the translations of the application, he now supervises some user feedback and adds new locations to the map. For some time now, French translations have been managed by a company. In other countries, this task still belongs to the community.
On the other side of the Alps, in Switzerland, Vincent (vince1612) spends 4 to 6 hours a week on Waze. A prison guard, he has been using the application since 2013 as a way to clear his head. Map maintenance, validation of certain alerts… His tasks mainly concern the navigation application.
Of course, volunteering for a multinational corporation is something that everyone has thought hard about. Some tell us that their hobby divides their loved ones, but all of them forbid themselves to play the Google game. They see themselves more as a bunch of enthusiasts who help people get around. “Some people play Candy Crush or PS4 for four hours a day, we kill time differently” explains Lionel. Waze also allowed them to found this band of map-loving friends who, let’s face it, seem quite united. They all know each other well, tease each other and seem to have shared many good times together. One of the contributors also describes these “Mega Meetup” trips as a kind of “financial compensation “.
With thousands of volunteers at his service, Waze logically made the choice not to invest in teams to oversee the map. The company has only 520 employees, which is small considering its size (in 2012, Google Maps had more than 7000). Among them are 44 “CMs” (community managers), community leaders. Each in charge of different areas, they interact directly with “pillar members” of the community such as those we met in Tel Aviv. They are also the ones who pass on tasks such as mapping tolls, petrol stations or electric vehicle charging stations.
Next time you use Waze, think of the thousands of enthusiasts without whom the application would not be possible. While this volunteer-based business model is puzzling, it is difficult to deny its success today. By inventing the community-based GPS, Waze has built the world’s strongest army of cartographers.