Under the Hood: How Waze Added Over 74,000 Food Banks to the Map in Record Time
Product Manager Omer Koren on giving an existing product a new purpose
Under the Hood gives you an inside look at different parts of Waze — straight from the people working on them every day.
As a product manager on the Waze ads team, my day-to-day role is constantly changing. One day I might be helping a small pizza shop in New York City drive traffic to their store, and the next I might be supporting our internal team manage the life cycle of a campaign. I’ve always enjoyed my work and helping people reach their goals. And then March came.
A new outlook overnight
That first week after the pandemic was declared, I didn’t know how to make sense of what was happening. I remember thinking, “The world is ending, who cares about this work anymore?” And then, of course, I remembered I work at Waze.
Waze is all about community and people helping each other — which I know sounds cliché — but it’s truly how our app is built! Waze only works when people collaborate. And inside Waze HQ, we were all incredibly passionate about finding a way to help right away. It didn’t matter what team you were on, if you were working on ads or something else entirely. We all got to work.
Giving an existing product a new purpose
Food insecurity is a huge issue, and overnight it had grown exponentially as jobs were impacted by the outbreak. With input from the Waze community — including our volunteer Map Editor, Michelle, who helped bring the need to our attention — we quickly zeroed in on our first critical priority: adding food banks to the map.
We needed to get this up and running fast, so we asked ourselves, “What small changes could we make to fit our existing technology to our new reality?” The answer was right in front of us: our advertisements.
After all, ads are just a way to communicate information, and the ads in Waze are paired to specific locations. We modified our ad platform with new badges, which was the workaround we needed in order to launch the Food Bank feature in record time.
We dropped whatever we could to work on this, and it was incredibly inspiring to see people working days, nights, and weekends to roll it out. From our first meeting to adding our first food bank badge, it took just two weeks.
Helping tens of thousands of people find a local food bank
Of course, we didn’t work on this alone. The first partner we met with was the nonprofit WhyHunger, to find out how we could support their mission. WhyHunger had already mapped over 30,000 food bank locations on their site and we were able to upload this data to make it immediately accessible to our 140 million users. We used a similar process with another nonprofit, No Kid Hungry. Since then we have partnered with other nonprofits, and they have collectively provided over 74,000 locations for the map.
I remember monitoring this new feature every day and watching the number of navigations increasing. It was overwhelming to see. My wife is a speech pathologist, and I used to be jealous that she’s able to see the results of her work and how it makes an impact on someone’s life. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that up until this point. I think it’s so important, especially at a time when the world is in crisis, to see everybody coming together and helping each other.
Expanding to testing centers, curbside pickup, and drive-thrus
The food banks were a big priority, but we also focused on adding COVID-19 testing centers and developing badges for curbside pickup and drive-thrus. It was great to be able to help business owners adapt and attract customers at a time when everyone needed support.
On a personal note, I use these features a lot, and I think about all the hard work and collaboration that went into them every time I swing by my favorite drive-thru (which, when you’re a product manager, totally counts as “testing your features”).
The best way to get something done? Start small
As our CMO Erin Clift has said, even though we’ve grown a ton since our beginning, Waze still “operates like a super scrappy startup.” And I completely agree. That scrappy spirit is what continues to amaze me about working at Waze. We’re fortunate to be able to bring ideas to life quickly, and use our existing tools to give people and communities the information they need.
Adding the curbside and drive-thru badges, in particular, was a huge undertaking and required a lot of work. Over 50 people worked on it, from engineers all the way to PR. But the idea began very small and very fast, with just a conversation between two people. That’s always a great way to start.