Waze and the Traffic Panopticon

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Waze and the Traffic Panopticon

In April, during his second annual State of the City address, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a data-sharing agreement with Waze, the Google-owned, Israel-based navigation service. Waze is different from most navigation apps, including Google Maps, in that it relies heavily on real-time, user-generated data. Some of this data is produced actively—a driver or passenger sees a stalled vehicle, then uses a voice command or taps a stalled-vehicle icon on the app to alert others—while other data, such as the user’s location and average speed, is gathered passively, via smartphones.

The agreement will see the city provide Waze with some of the active data it collects, alerting drivers to road closures, construction, and parades, among other things. From Waze, the city will get real-time data on traffic and road conditions. Garcetti said that the partnership would mean “less congestion, better routing, and a more livable L.A.” Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze’s head of growth, acknowledged to me that these kinds of deals can cause discomfort to the people working inside city government. “It’s exciting, but people inside are also fearful because it seems like too much work, or it seems so unknown,” she said.

Indeed, the deal promises to help the city improve some of its traffic and infrastructure systems (L.A. still uses paper to manage pothole patching, for example), but it also acknowledges Waze’s role in the complex new reality of urban traffic planning. Traditionally, traffic management has been a largely top-down process.

In Los Angeles, it is coördinated in a bunker downtown, several stories below the sidewalk, where engineers stare at blinking lights representing traffic and live camera feeds of street intersections. L.A.’s sensor-and-algorithm-driven Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System is already one of the world’s most sophisticated traffic-mitigation tools, but it can only do so much to manage the city’s eternally unsophisticated gridlock. Los Angeles appears to see its partnership with Waze as an important step toward improving the bridge between its subterranean panopticon and the rest of the city still further, much like other metropolises that have struck deals with Waze under the company’s Connected Cities program. []