From Google to Waze and Back, or Here Comes the Drivenger

Here’s a prolonged deliberation on agency, design, cars and the future rise of drivengers, that will drive/ride automatic cars. It’s an attempt to make heads or tails out of the uneasy relationship that technologies behind mapping conglomerates have with cars and the movement of cars in space.

There are two main actors in this post (with a third one making a quick appearance towards the end): Google and Waze. While Waze is now part of the larger Google structure, I treat them sometimes differently under the assumption that while they share (some of the) data and infrastructure, the assumptions behind their design principles and use scenarios are different.Yet, I assume that they will continuously converge, sharing data and servers, as the time goes by.

So, Waze has published in September news of a version upgraded that introduced places. If that sounds familiar than it’s because Google Maps (“Classic” – per-2013) had a function called “My Places“. They are very different however, and this differences underscores that transition that undergoes Google. Here’s the summary:

When you’re headed to your destination, you will also see a redesigned preview screen containing all Places info added by other Wazers. All this info will ensure that you are navigating to the right place and help you recognize your destination before you approach it.
Oh and did we mention adding places is worth big points? Any contribution to places is a great way to move up the scoreboard!The more you contribute, the better it gets for everyone! By working together, users from across the world can create a new standard of information for both businesses and places of residence everywhere in the world.

So while Google places was individualized private take on the world. You could add little markers and paths to your own private section of Google maps. Waze asks you to take photos (big points!!!) on your private routes, and share them with the community. Since the data of the two companies is (or will be) integrated, it provides Google with an additional, pre-tagged, source of geolocated photos.
These are welcome addition to Google own Street View service, in two important ways:
  1. Unlike grab-everything-street-view, those photos indicate user attention in a direct way. This is more akin to the way Google might user, let’s say, Ingress to gauge user engagement with localities, but with a commercial twist – the difference between space (Ingress) and place (Waze).
  2. Crowdsourcing allows for constant updates from users, without additional investment in street view rounds. This is especially portent with the introduction of time slider in street view.

(Auto)Mobilities

All this is particularly interesting when reading Wired’s interesting exposé on the “Deep Map” behind GM and the massive amounts of invisible work that goes into keeping it updated and usable. The other side of this invisible work can be seen in an admiration post for Waze (jumping back and forth here, I know, but the principle stands). In the aptly named “The Surprising Wisdom of Waze” LA Magzines’ writes a descriptive account of the way Waze changed her driving experience over time. In a piece that reads at times like a feature-long ad, the boundaries of reality and techno-magic merge to produce insights like:

I understand now that I am part of a collective traffic consciousness built from user-generated real-time information. As we Waze practitioners move about we communicate our maneuvers, helping those setting out on their own routes. We are not the grumpy, atomized drivers of yore. We are a family, pawns in the same streetwise chess game. I am amused when I find myself following someone who is making the same moves I am: a left here, a right there, another right, another left. A fellow Wazer, no doubt.

The hidden work that goes into maintaining those hybrid landscapes of traffic and user-generated (donated?) content is blurred. The implications to privacy, precarious labor condition and the black-boxing of mapped data are unclear. If once you could use GM to make your own routes and maps (remember “personalization”, the buzz-word of yesteryear?) now Waze encourages you to share those personal routes to the benefit of the hive-drive-mind. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m concerned that it is hidden. The personalization today becomes hidden and algorithmic, fueled by multiple actors unknown to the user.

There is another elephant in the crowdsourced mapping room, and it wants to drive itself. Google’s deep map will serve more and more actors who are not necessarily human. As stated in this great interview with Nokia’s* Peter Skillman, lead designer for HERE, the company’s maps division, future road maps serve two radically different audiences. They should be detailed and encompassing enough to assist robotic cars in self-navigation, while explaining to the driver/passenger (drivenger?) where and why the car is going, and how is it making such decisions. I have no doubts that Google/Waze are exploring the same issues. LIDAR – generated data helps machines, but Gamification-fueled crowdsourcing of routes and places is probably one of many good solutions to help the humans stay connected.

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* Remember how Nokia used be dominate mobile phones? No? Me neither. 🙁

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