To truly understand the Waze map and how it got so popular, you have to go back to a small group of volunteers literally drawing maps with their cars and something called “FreeMap.”
For the first time, we’re gathering the lore of old and tracing a path straight to the thousands of Map Editors, Localizers, and Beta Testers who make Waze what it is today. It covers traffic jams, tunnels, and long-lost eras of the internet.
It all starts in Tel Aviv in 2006.
Drawing the early map
Back then, Waze went by a different name: FreeMap. Ron Vaisman, now a quality manager at Waze, was there.
“In 2006, I was in a Pocket PC forum, which was a thing back then.” There, he met Ehud Shabtai, developer of FreeMap. “You just installed the app, went driving on a blank map, and it drew roads on your phone,” he recalls.
There were no 3G or 4G networks at the time, so everyone’s edits happened offline. “You’d go home and upload the files into the system. Then you’d log into the Map Editor and connect all the roads that you drew on the map.”
The FreeMap community was small, but Vaisman says it was exciting to see it grow, right alongside the number of roads on the map. It was also a little terrifying. “I was afraid to touch the roads because I didn’t want to break something,” he says. “Today, Editors have ranks and permissions, so it’s not possible to delete something by accident. We didn’t have those before.”
What started with a few hundred drivers mapping 5,000 kilometers in Israel soon expanded. By 2008, there were 2,500 drivers and a new name: Linqmap. By 2009, that number had grown to 17,000, and the app had yet another new name. Only this time, it stuck.
Here’s a cool fact: I’m user 102 in the entire world. We have millions and millions of users, and I’m user 102.” — Ron Vaisman
Waze is available globally
If you’re wondering where the name “Waze” came from and guessed it was related to “ways,” you’re on the right track. “Ways” was actually the first choice, but someone already owned it. When the team reached out to see if they’d sell, the owner demanded a pretty steep price. “Waze,” on the other hand, was 25x cheaper. So there you have it — the truth behind why we’re Waze not Ways.
Waze made its brand debut in January 2009. The app launched in the United States in May of that year and worldwide that November. Early users didn’t see much when they downloaded the app. In many places, the map hadn’t been drawn yet. But enough people saw the potential in the blank canvas, like Susana, a Map Editor in Spain.
“I started editing by accident,” she says. “Someone gave me an iPhone 4 and I downloaded a map app that was in the early stages of development. I got hooked on the gamification and editing on an empty roadmap. It was a relaxing activity to pair with my night duty at the hospital.”
In Louisiana, Marc had a similar revelation. “It wouldn’t route you anywhere,” he remembers. “It was all just a basemap that no one had ever edited.” He took up map editing in earnest, spending time driving around to fill in the blanks and help build the map in the US. “It was exciting to be there at the start and build something from such an early level.”
Taking the Waze map to the next level
With the foundation set, the next step in the map’s evolution was making targeted improvements.
For bigger changes, Map Editors rallied around the idea of “MapRaids,” internationally coordinated efforts to adjust specific areas of the map. They’ve edited as many as 2.5 million segments in one Map Raid.
“MapRaids are very goal oriented,” explains Orbit, a Map Editor and Global Champ who’s been volunteering since 2012. “That goal can vary from building the map itself to implementing a new feature. It depends on the area and what it needs.”
But there’s plenty of fine-tuning that goes on, too. Kathy, a Map Editor from Massachusetts, thrives on those opportunities.
“There was a woman who owned a hair salon north of where I live that was mapped incorrectly,” she says. “People would be sent 20 miles away, and they’d be late for their appointments. I was able to fix that error, and she was thrilled.”
Making it easier for Wazers to help in more ways
Initially, only people with mobile connectivity on the road could see hazards in real time. Not that it stopped people like Ron Vaisman. He used a clever offline workaround. “Before I went for a drive, I would sync the latest maps from my computer so I had a ‘real-time’ report,” he says. “It’s funny to look back on that now.”
In 2011, though, real-time alerts hit the spotlight with a little event known as Carmageddon.
Facing the prospect of the 405 freeway being shut down for construction, Waze partnered with L.A.’s KABC News to share live updates from Wazers on the road and help drivers find alternate routes. Today, Wazers in more than 185 countries worldwide report 40 million incidents every month to keep each other in the know.
Using Waze for emergency response
If Carmageddon showed what Wazers can do against traffic, 2012 proved they can help in other powerful ways.
During Hurricane Sandy, the Waze Community helped FEMA address gas shortages in New York and New Jersey by reporting which gas stations were open and had fuel available. While certainly useful for people in the area, it also helped FEMA understand where to dispatch fuel trucks. The effort marked Waze’s first government partnership and was an early indicator that Wazers are always ready to help.
The ChitChat feature also came in handy as Wazers used it to update each other about what was going on during the storm. Members of the Waze Community found a way to help share these updates with more people.
“When the government declared a state of emergency, we thought: ‘What can we do to alert drivers?’” says Orbit, who helped bring an early version of the emergency alerts feature to life along with other Global Champs and the Waze team. “We were able to use the messaging feature to alert people to what was happening.” The process was pretty manual at first and involved collecting and publishing the messages five or six times a day.
Today, the volunteer community directly assists emergency response all over the word. When COVID-19 first hit, for example, they helped ensure information on testing centers was accurate and up-to-date. Similarly, these Community First Responders often work directly with authorities to make sure the latest info on shelters, closures, and evacuation zones are reflected on the map during hurricanes and other crises.
Making smart cities with data, beacons, and some cool vests
Over time, Wazers have become more integral to the way cities run, from their very infrastructure to how quickly they respond to traffic emergencies.
With Waze for Cities, local governments and transportation agencies can use more crowdsourced data in their planning. It’s grown from 10 to 1,800 city and public sector partners.
And in Europe, North, and South America, the Community helped launch Waze Beacons, devices placed in tunnels that send out Bluetooth® signals and prevent drivers from losing their GPS signal underground.
“Beacons are important because a lot of times people slow down toward the end of the tunnel to see which way they’re going to go — right or left,” explains Orbit. “That slow down actually creates either traffic or accidents or other issues. So the Beacons are a life-saver for that reason.”
In Chicago, Map Editors Patrick and Joe reviewed aerial images and drove through the tunnels, updating segments of the road to make sure the directions were accurate. They even helped with the installation. “Missing the opportunity to participate in deployment was not an option, and the chance to wear a CDOT vest was impossible to pass up,” says Patrick.
Growing the impact of the Waze Community
The Waze map is constantly evolving, with features like lane guidance, railroad crossings, and toll pricing. Today, more than 18 million map edits are made every month. And it’s not just about our (heroic) Map Editors, Localizers, and Beta Testers — everyday Wazers make a difference, too, when they report hazards, suggest improvements, or simply use the app.
Waze is available in more than 56 languages and has a volunteer team of hundreds of active translators, including Susana, who added Galician, her native language, into Waze. She translated most of it, and even put her voice in it. “When you select Uxía as your Galician voice, it’s me,” she says. “For my family and friends, the discovery of Uxía’s voice was fantastic and a lot of fun. We’re all proud to hear Uxía guiding us to our destinations.”
Carpool is another opportunity for Wazers to make a difference on the road. Launched in 2016, it uses routes on the map to pair drivers and riders who are going the same way. For many Carpoolers, sharing rides is a way to turn a typical commute into an adventure. “My carpool is a book club, a recipe club, a restaurant recommendation club,” says Rich. “Every ride is a mini-adventure with traffic-conscious neighbors willing to go a little out of their way to make a difference on the road.”
The map has come a long way since FreeMap. But it’s still changing.
“In all the years I’ve been volunteering with Waze, I’m surprised to see that we have so much more information on the map now, from lanes to different voices to house numbers,” says Orbit. “It’s amazing to see all this information on the map, but in a way that’s still simple.”
The next great idea for shaping the Waze map might be yours. Interested in becoming a Map Editor? Click the link to visit Wazeopedia to learn more.