I have recently come across a mobile phone app which might be interesting for mapping roads in cities after disasters. Waze has been designed to help drivers get a better idea of such things as traffic jams, accidents, police or road hazards, but it might be possible to adapt this – or develop a similar app – for humanitarian response.
Tracking your every move
Screenshop of the Waze app. Reports are submitted by pressing one of the icons, the GPS coordinates are being recorded continuously.
Waze does two things: it continuously reports the position of a Waze user’s smart phone via the internet, monitors how fast that person is driving and uses this information to alert others of slow traffic. Admittedly this is also a bit scary and I’m wondering how much bandwidth and battery Waze eats in the process.
Report a collapsed bridge or road block with your smart phone?
The second Waze feature is much more interesting: users can report hazards and obstacles on the road and, rather than having to fill out a report a la Ushahidi, they can report the most common hazards by pressing images on their screen. Since the phone knows it’s GPS position these reports show up on the shared map in real-time. You can also attach photos to your reports.
I’m really curious to know how easily these categories could be customized for certain cities or dedicated Waze servers so that users in humanitarian emergencies could for example report blocked roads, collapsed bridges or protest marches. Out of curiosity, I contacted Waze to ask them about this, but unfortunately I didn’t get a reply.
Dependent on functioning infrastructure
Obviously Waze is entirely depended on mobile internet being available to its users, something that is simply not realistic in many natural disasters. But it should be possible to develop an offline version which then shares data with the community when being connected to a computer. Clearly, in that case the maps would have to be available offline as well, which is another hassle but not an insurmountable problem.
In any case it might still be an interesting tool for more mid-income countries like Chile or Peru which see many earthquakes and have a robust infrastructure. What I like about it, is that Waze doesn’t require people to learn a complex system. The interface is so intuitive that anybody can understand it.
The bottom line is, Waze is an interesting example how crisis mapping could be made easier. The technology already exists.