App of the Week: Waze

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App: Waze Platforms: iPhone, Android, BlackBerry (beta only, Windows Mobile) Web site: Waze.com Cost: Free

Houstonians know their traffic like Seattleites know their heroin coffee or heaved aquatic animals. In other words, we are used to driving and doing it in a mess of mangled, crushingly slow suburbanites.

There are quite a large number of apps available to aid drivers, from mapping technology to hands-free assistance. It's a tad bit terrifying to think of all the people on the roads with their smart phones, but soon we'll have robot-controlled cars or live in the Matrix anyway.

One very cool addition to the list of driving-related titles is Waze, a crowdsource-driven traffic app that not only helps users to avoid jams, speed traps and other highway impediments but lets users get involved in the updating.

Waze is basically a sophisticated mapping app that tracks a user's location via GPS. It monitors the speed of the vehicle on the road and then updates global maps in real time, showing areas with slower traffic. In essence, users of Waze act as de facto traffic reporters by just opening the app and keeping it open as they drive. The information provided is completely anonymous unless you want to broadcast your whereabouts.

Users who want to get more involved can provide their own updates regarding wrecks, speed traps and the like as well as take photos to be uploaded to the Waze community. Fortunately, the Waze app disables texting functions when the vehicle is moving, but menus are still available for reporting accidents and viewing messages from other users.

The reporting of road hazards takes only a couple of clicks and gets pretty detailed, including, for example, choices of items that might be blocking the road like potholes. Reports from users pop up on the screen as other drivers reach that location. Posts can be automatically added to Twitter and Facebook as well.

In addition to traffic, Waze asks users to update map errors, helping to improve the detail and accuracy of the system. In what has to be one of the slicker features of the app, if a user reaches a road that is not listed on a Waze map, he can record his route and provide information to administrators so the map can be updated later. The route is recorded by simply tapping a button and GPS does the rest.

If you want to check on traffic before you leave home, you can see real-time traffic maps that appear to be quite a bit more user-friendly than Transtar on the Waze Web site. In fact, a recent addition to the iPhone version allows users to generate a driving route based on the latest traffic reports. This new addition also adds somewhat of a gaming component to the system, showing icons that, when passed on the virtual map, accrue points. Other users can chime in with comments on your winnings.

Granted, updates are limited to how many users are on the system at a given time. Even in a city the size of Houston, information can be sparse, though Waze does monitor updates from the Houston Chronicle Twitter account @HPD_scanner, which constantly updates police incidents.

Still, it would be nice to see more people with the app open if for nothing more than the entertainment value. Watching the cars move around on the map is a little like playing with a road version of Harry Potter's Marauder's Map. Waze might not help you track the whereabouts of Professor Snape inside Hogwarts, but it could help you avoid traffic on 610, an impressive feat in its own right.

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