Joining with the many millions of existing users, it’s highly likely that you’ve added Waze to your pre-driving ritual. Just like buckling your seat belt or checking your mirrors, turning on the Israeli developed GPS navigation app has become a standard of driving these days. Now, 7 years after Google acquired Waze for over $1 billion, the company still keeps an army of software engineers and developers on hand. However, underneath the surface, or should we say underneath the map, lies tens of thousands of users that maintain the app, maps, traffic reports, keeping everything updated. So we wanted to find out, what makes thousands of volunteers donate their time for a market big wig, with deep pockets like Google?

Waze’s map-editing community shrugs off the $1B sale

You might be used to the standard product line of developers, features, QA, beta tests, etc., but Waze keeps a development team that runs a little differently, and leading the charge is the map-editor community. Truthfully? It’s not that surprising. Unlike other apps, Waze started out as a FreeMapp, which was a community-based project, where users were asked to download the app and drive different routes to better map the country of Israel. What’s amazing here is that the public were the ones who actively participated in building, improving, and establishing the company’s database, essentially, the users created the navigation map.

It was expected that the map-editor community would fade away following the Google purchase, mostly because before the exit, the owners were making bank off of the open crowdsourcing project, while the crowd was left behind. Subsequently, bringing half of a billion-dollar lawsuit, with community members demanding a cut of the action.

Although, in an interview with Geektime, reveals Waze Communities Global Group Manager Hila Roth that the community is more than ‘alive and kicking’: “On the contrary, the map-editor community has grown exponentially… It was truly an honor to be part of something big. Suddenly people were hearing about the community behind Waze.

A 30,000 strong army of active editors

The extensive Waze map-editor community includes over 30,000 active contributors, which update maps at least 3 times per month. Additionally, random editors and newcomers join the army of map-editors and the global crowdsourcing of users, who also heavily influence maps by reporting and sharing traffic jams, road hazards, navigational issues, and more.

Hila Roth credit: Waze

For example, the editors are in charge of the navigate by lane option that shows you exactly which lane you need to be in so that you don’t miss your exit driving down a 6 lane wide highway. Nevertheless, Waze couldn’t just launch the new interface as if it was a quick software update, mostly because it demanded data that doesn’t really exist. As with the 2019 launch of the toll price feature, an extensive database was required from the community, and the level of success was directly linked to member involvement in the project.

“There are many different ways to map the routes, but we gave the community front stage,” explains Roth. According to her, the community was involved throughout the feature development process, focusing on how to correctly input the data into the system. “There’s no scenario where a new feature is launched without the community being involved from day one… the community takes an active part in the feedback of the ‘alpha’s alpha test,” claims Roth, who continues to add that strategic decisions involve the community on a daily basis. In order to do so, Waze hosts close to 70 global events, where company executives meet with community members. Even during COVID-19, the meetings have continued as planned, they were just moved online… We meet with them on a weekly basis, whether through direct meetings, webinars, Q&As, and others.”

It sounds like the community works pretty hard for Waze. Are they compensated in any way?

“They receive no monetary reward. This is a community of volunteers… it’s their hobby. They love doing it, and until you actually meet them, you just don’t understand why would anyone do this.”

Regardless, you don’t ever come across community members who want to also take a bite out of the Waze and Google pie?

“It’s never been an issue. People always want to contribute to a greater cause.”

Roth informs us that the company sends out an annual survey to the community, with a focus on the motive behind the unpaid involvement in the project. “The first answer is always either ‘it’s my way of contributing’ or ‘I like to volunteer’. A lot of the people involved do charity work anyway, so it kind of fits their persona.”

Although, in this situation, Waze’s success depends entirely on the community of volunteers

“It’s the chicken or the egg conundrum… These people know that by volunteering their time will make the product operate at its best. The product is important to these people, it’s part of them. Only when you actually meet them, do you get it. You can see it in their eyes. The desire to support the newbie map-editors. In the end, this is what we are seeing. There’s no Waze without the community, like there’s no community without Waze.”

Roth is quick to defend Waze’s community concept, claiming that even though the work is unpaid - considering that you don’t count the pizzas and SWAG at company events - the value is a spiritual reward for the community. According to Roth, the community is made up of former services and volunteer workers like police officers and medical personnel: “They have a history of helping the public… people who have a need to express and be noticed… these are people that just want to give and help… people that want to provide their loved ones with an improved free service.”

Community members stand up, as the crisis breaks everything down

I also assumed that the Coronavirus crisis will lead to fewer cars on the road, which subsequently leads to less activity come from the army of volunteers. However, Waze’s data shows otherwise. According to Roth, COVID actually freed up more time for community members. “They knew exactly how to attack the crisis,” explains Roth about the virus outbreak. The community started mapping food dispensaries, COVID-19 testing stations, updating list of restaurants with takeaway services, and of course, updating the maps for lockdown. “For example, when the Israeli city of Bnei Barak went on total lockdown, the navigational roadblock showed up immediately.” In contrast to Israel’s approach to total lockdowns, other countries from around the world use pinpoint lockdowns on certain neighborhoods. Bringing the community to their feet, updating maps with the most recent quarantine info: “They set alarms for the middle of the night, or when on holiday with their families. It takes a few minutes and everything is updated with the next project on deck.”

The people who can block the highway

Map editor eye-view credit: Waze

One of the ways to keep the community members so involved comes from the gamification of the map editing process. The same way that the Waze interface rewards users that reported traffic delays by ranking and giving them points for positive actions, so does the map-editing community utilize a similar 1 to 6 ranking metric. Roth explains that most of the new editors come after wanting to edit a specific element on the map, then discovering the map editors, who provided quick feedback and great service. Initially, new editors can only edit details approximate to their homes, but the more experience an editor gets, the more doors of opportunity open up. New editors could find themselves in a mentorship situation with an experienced editor tutoring and guiding the ins and outs of map editing. That way, Waze protects the map from abuse or mistakes, while also advancing proven editors.

“From level 4 and up, it’s all options,” Roth tells, which reminds us also of how Wikipedia functions. The community members get together for Waze focused debates, and for choosing who is gonna rise a level next. In the end, only 140 editors make it to level 6, or Global Champs level, as the company calls it. These are the people who could block the highways,” notes Roth. “These are the people that we meet in person a couple of times a year, and conduct at least one video chat per week. They text with the CEO and call me whenever they want… They’ve become my whole world.”

53 million edits a month

Despite the fact that new highways and overpasses are rarely constructed, and the map is more or less complete, each month the editing community performs over 53 million map-edits around the world. From blocking a right-hand turn to changing a house number and paving new roads, the community is on the job, updating every mobility change. Inside these communities, different cliques form, and compete one against the other, In other situations, countries collaborate on different issues, bringing them up to Waze’s management in a democratic fashion, like some kind of ‘Hunger Waze’.

The community is predominantly made up of - prepare your surprised face - men in their 40s and 50s. Nevertheless, Roth claims that over the past two years the company has highlighted bringing more women into the editing circle. Among others, she points out Italy, there alongside a male chief editor stands a female editor nicknamed “Mama Italia”, who Roth tells about when “the community members get pissed off at the chief, they go to her. So typical to the Italian culture.”

Waze team 

Other than the map-editing community, Roth is in charge of 4 additional communities: The 1,000 person localization community that translates menus and elements from the interface into over 60 languages; a 20,000 big beta-testing community, who test the app daily; Waze partners that is made up of a few hundred representatives from the police force, municipalities, governments, and other official organizations; and finally Waze’s carpool project community, which numbers about 10,000 volunteers.

Can carpool culture take-off during COVID?

Waze’s carpool service was launched in 2015 under the name RideWith, which was an attempt to become the driving motive behind carpool culture in Israel. However, sharing your car with strangers didn’t really catch on in Israel, with drivers preferring to be alone in their own cars. Even though the service wasn’t a huge success out of the gate, Roth continues to believe in the idea: “It’s still a company focus point...we were in a good place with market penetration.”

Then like salt on a wound, COVID arrives and people become even more fearful of riding with a total stranger in a small confined place, which is then followed by the accompanying state regulations regarding car sharing. But Roth thinks that this is an opportunity for the carpool service that will allow “to ride with 1 extra passenger. If it’s someone you previously know? This is something we believe and are striving towards.

Waze won’t get swallowed up by Google

It’s really hard to understand why Google, despite Waze’s success and popularity, would maintain two different navigation brands (Google Maps) that compete for the same users; will the hard work behind Waze get swallowed up by a Google product? Obviously, many times we see features migrate from one app to another under the same brand umbrella.

Roth confirms that Google Maps does get its data from Waze, but beyond that, she claims that they are not competing apps: “In the end, there is no real competition between Google Maps, which is an end-to-end mobility solution including bike, train, and walking routes, and Waze that services drivers and has no intention of expanding into other services. True, they also have carpool, but that’s just a small part of the global service.” Roth further claims that Google Maps is as its name, a map app, while Waze provides navigation services.

Roth thinks that beyond the product features, Waze’s strongest advantage is its community. “This is the reason why Waze is so successful, accurate, and able to update on the minute. These are things that Google Maps lacks.” According to her, there are currently no plans to integrate Waze as a part of Google Maps. “They live in a peaceful parallel. They will never be ‘Google navigation apps’, but will always reach a broader crowd. It can drive community members crazy, but there’s no talk around it right now, and the CEO makes it his mission to remind everybody…”

Suckers or anonymous heroes?

The community that Hila Roth and her team built at Waze is somewhat of an odd duck in the tech world. Try to think of the last time you heard of a tech company, especially one that flies under Google’s flag, that was able to develop a culture of users ready to devote their leisure time to operating as an unpaid data collecting QA team for the company.

There are those who would call them “suckers”, allowing Google to get rich off their hard work, and the global driving community to be able to appreciate the community’s activity while using Waze to get to work quicker. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.