They say necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of popular global positioning system (GPS)-based navigation app Waze, frustration and a gift were the seeds that drove its creators to find a better way to navigate the busy streets of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Dror Cohen, Ads Product Manager and one of the original developers of Waze, described the popular app’s beginnings in a teleconference held at the Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (EEEI) Auditorium on Jul. 19.
The conference is part of a partnership between the EEEI, the Ateneo Graduate School of Business and the Embassy of Israel in Manila. The event was attended by students from other universities.
Cohen narrated how founder Ehud Shabtai installed a GPS app on a personal digital assistant device given by his girlfriend to help him in his daily commute.
“It started to cross his mind that it would be much nicer if everybody was using this device while driving and just talk to each other and kind of share info on what’s happening on the road,” he said.
This was in 2006, when smartphones were only beginning to gain popularity. Apple would not release the first iPhone until 2007.
“It’s just one of those ideas that made sense. At the time connectivity was not that big so it would cost a lot of money [to buy maps] and most of the people did not have smartphones. But he started with a community of people who had this device and wanted to share knowledge about traffic on the road,” Cohen said.
So they came up with a solution: crowdsource the data. Using anonymized GPS points or trails that drivers who use their app leave behind, the company collected these information and fed them through a series of algorithms to create road maps all over the world.
“…over time when you collect enough of these GPS trails you start to figure out patterns,” Cohen said.
The second step was to figure out street names, which they did through the Waze Maps Editor, a tool that allowed users to identify street names to certain locations.
“A lot of people did it because they found it rewarding that they can create something new, they can create a map. They can go and upload street names and say “oh, I know this street.” They can also say ‘you got the turns right/wrong,’” he said.
Perhaps the most important aspect for Waze’s development, Cohen noted, was the large, vibrant and active community the app created.
“The community is what keeps Waze alive until today. We have a very, very strong community of people who contribute time and effort to keep the map updated,” he said.
Waze continued to gain popularity all over the world until it got noticed by a company. In June 2013, Google bought Waze for $1.1 billion.
Today the app has over 100 million users worldwide and is one of the most popular apps for GPS-based navigation. Uber and Grabtaxi, two of the most popular ride-sharing services in the country use Waze as their default navigation application.
Cohen attributes the success of Waze to Israel’s dynamic technology startup-friendly environment.
Technology blog Techcrunch described the country as having “…a long, celebrated history when it comes to technology and research and development, and its startup economy, which is already one of the strongest in the region, continues to evolve and produce great companies. Waze represents one of the largest exits for an Israeli-born company in recent memory.”