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Civic Tech and Engagement: With Waze, Who's in the Driver's Seat?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, October 21 2014

Screenshot of's live map for Rio de Janeiro

Can you be a "connected citizen" if you don't know that you are connected to government? That's the question that's been on my mind since Waze, the crowdsourced traffic data company recently acquired by Google, announced a major new partnership with ten local cities and governments around the world called "Connected Citizens."

Under this program, Waze will be giving city, state and county authorities like the New York Police Department and Rio de Janiero's Operations Center real-time traffic incident data (aggregated and anonymized) and in turn getting timely and relevant data from the authorities about scheduled events (construction, marathons and the like) that can also cause traffic problems. Since the program's announcement, dozens more governments have been applying to join in.

At first glance, this can only be seen as a net plus good where everyone wins: Waze users get even better real-time traffic help, first responders can move faster to address road problems, and Google and Waze can make their traffic maps and predictions more accurate (something that was already happening as Wazers' data was incorporated into Google Maps last year).

But the New York Police Department is hardly anyone's idea of a transparent or responsive public organization, and Waze--for all its user-friendly language and services--is also part of a much larger business, Google, that is also all over the map on protecting user privacy. So this new partnership between Waze and governments around the world deserves much closer attention.

If you aren't already a Waze user, you should absolutely check it out. I've been using the app for the last five years whenever I'm on a long drive, and it definitely works. When you have it enabled on your mobile phone, it provides up-to-date driving directions, using the ambient knowledge provided by hundreds of live users on nearby roads to generate pretty accurate real-time information, such as average road speeds. If anything, its calculations of travel times and alternate routes seems to have gotten dramatically better in the last year since it was bought by Google. Waze also has some nifty social features that enable users to upload detailed reports on traffic conditions and even message each other while on the road (passengers are supposed to be the ones doing that).

For example, a year ago, I was stuck in a total standstill on the Saw Mill River Parkway in Westchester, and turned on Waze to find out what was going on. The road was blocked for at least a mile behind a serious accident, and there were at least a half dozen other Wazers stuck in the same back-up. Two of us messaged each other, inside the app, to share what we knew. At one point, someone else posted a photo of the long line of cars in front of them, and my son glanced over at it. "Dad, that's from the car directly in front of us!" he exclaimed.

But making a privately-held, closed-source consumer-facing app work better is one thing. Claiming that it is a platform for a new kind of citizen participation is something else entirely. In that respect, Waze's new "Connected Citizens" program can teach us a lot about the potential, and limits, of tech-empowered civic engagement when the users aren't really in the driver's seat (pun intended).

Making Apps More Civic?
About two years ago, Oscar Salazar, the founder of Citivox (and before that, co-founder of Uber), declared that Waze had more pothole reports on it than all other civic apps combined. Pressed to back up his claim (by the ubiquitous Alex Howard), Salazar tweeted that with 90 million reports on Waze in 2012 alone, it was safe to assume that at least 5% were potholes, which would be a huge user-generated database. Indeed, if only one percent of traffic reports on Waze were potholes in one year, that would be almost equal to all the reports that civic app SeeClickFix has collected in its six years of existence across more than one hundred cities.

It's hard not to look at a platform like Waze and, as Nick Grossman astutely put it, ask how to make apps "be more civic" rather than just build more civic apps. As a very useful and easy-to-use tool for the sharing of all kinds of road and traffic information, one that now has more than 50 million users worldwide, Waze would appear to be a pre-eminent example of civic tech at work.

But are Wazers "connected citizens"? Is Waze actually in the business of enhancing civic engagement? Not really. The language of citizenship being perverted here, in somewhat the same way a "Facebook town-hall meeting" or a White House "We the People" e-petition can leave you wishing for something more genuinely participatory and empowering.

Waze's new "connected citizens" program was kicked off with a revealing panel discussion held October 1st at the IAC Center here in New York City, moderated by techno-pundit Baratunde Thurston, and featuring Waze's head of global partnerships Di-Ann Eisnor, Pedro Junqueira, the head of Rio de Janeiro's operations center, and Assaf Bederman, the associate director of MIT's SENSEable City Lab.

Some of what they said about the new program was unobjectionable. According to Eisnor, "The first time we realized we could be more helpful," in terms of providing real-time information that could improve government services, was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. At the behest of the White House, the company asked Wazers to share information about whether gas stations in the northeast were open, and more than ten thousand responses flowed in. Talk about the power of crowd-sourcing!

Eisnor also made clear that the data Waze is sharing with governments is anonymized and aggregated. It's public alerts about an accident or traffic problem, nothing about where specific users are located. (Right now we have to take Waze's word on this. It remains to be seen if a police department decides to crack down on Waze users who frequently report speed traps, or use the platform to report police misbehavior.)

Junqueira's comments were more jarring. From the point of view of city government, he said, "Waze is a new kind of sensor. The best kind of information is that which comes from citizens." But, he added, "Many Wazers don't know they are talking to us," meaning city hall. Indeed, Rio's Operations Center, a $14 million digital nerve center built for the city by IBM in 2010, ties together real-time information about the city's infrastructure and services along with current news about crime, traffic, crowds and public disturbances, drawn in part from hundreds of cameras placed around the city. But it is a place where city managers watch the public, not one where they join the public in running the city.

Nevertheless, he insisted, the partnership between his city, Rio, and Waze, represented a new form of governance: "Polisdigitocracy." With technology, he said, "people want to be part of decisions." Not explained, at least in those remarks, was how passively feeding real-time traffic data to a central city monitoring system was being a "part" of a "decision."

I followed up with both Eisnor and Junqueira by email. To their credit, both responded pretty quickly and openly. Here's what they said, with just minor edits for clarity:

First, Junqueira:

Q: I'd love to hear more from you about how the partnership between Waze and Rio is creating "connected citizens," the theme of the launch event here in New York. Individual citizens are being connected to government via these information flows, yes. But as you said, they may not even know that city hall is listening. Can someone be "connected" if they aren't even aware of it? And I assume you don't mean that citizens are being connected to each other so much as the government-citizen connection, right?

To be connected is something that may not need you to know about. Of course if you know what you´re connected to, and how, it's always a better experience. For example, in our body we have lots of connections that we don´t really think about, but still they work and if needed or wanted, we might understand better. 

Always when I´m driving, to give you a practical example, I test how my behavior affects the vehicles surrounding me. If I´m more polite and consider the "direction-wishes" of the mobiles close to me, traffic in the local flows better. If I´m more individualist, thinking at my self as "an island" on wheels, the flow becomes kind of worse and sometimes slower. What do I want to say with this? Even if I don´t consider my connection with other vehicles, in fact we are connected and one can potentially cause impact over the others.

With the usage of Waze, traffic conditions tend to be more balanced, minimizing the chances of a huge concentration at a specific location, because the app does automatic rerouting (or at least suggestions) when something happens that affects your route. In my point of view this sounds like a connection, even if we don´t really do this "math."

[Junqueira also noted that as the Rio-Waze partnership is covered more by the media, local Wazers will thus be more aware of the fact that their information is indeed getting to the city.]

Q: You talked a lot about how citizens of Rio are "participating" in the city's running as their data flows in from Waze, but I'm finding it hard to square that with our usual notion of citizenship as active participation (again, with knowledge). 

Intelligent communities are not necessarily the ones with the larger amount of tech. Participation starts with information, and one of the seeds to citizenship is information too. If people and governments have data/information exchange, we see that citizenship is better promoted and maintained, we see communities working better. This is how the experience at the Operations Center shows every day.

And one thing I´d like to clarify is that I don´t feel like we have done everything we could. This just means that we feel [that we are] on the right direction, and by a daily observation and discussion with partners, we go [on] adjusting things, fixing the bike while we´re riding it.

Q: Lastly, you used a new term that I found fascinating--"polisdigitocracy." Can you say more about what you mean by this?

This term is really fascinating. In a short way of explaining it, let's think about the past, when citizens at the POLIS (city from the past) went to the ÁGORA to discuss their situation, their possible future and make decisions together. This is how communities ran themselves for a long time. After that, with the difficulty of keeping everyone together and discussing when the number of people went huge for that type of meetings, and life changes, people let the elected politicians decide, voting once every few years, and letting them do everything.

Things are changing again, and technology is in the middle of that. People want to be somehow "in the center of the decisions again," citizens want to decide too.

Polisdigitocracy is this new way of doing things. By asking, by listening to citizens, due to the transparency that internet and social media bring, and more, governments will gradually be more impacted by people´s voices. This doesn't mean "no elections or no politicians." It's very different than that. This means that before and after the elections I want to be considered, I want to help my city develop, I want others to know what the priorities could be considering this and that specific point of view.

In essence, Junquiera seems to be saying that in today's digital mass society, we "participate" by actively sharing tiny bits of personal data and knowledge using social media and apps that plug our information into government services, by changing our own personal behavior in ways that may affect those around us, and also by being "listened" to by government.

This is the "monitorial citizen" model in reverse: instead of citizens watching their representatives and public officials to make sure they are doing their jobs, government tries to improve the job it does for citizens by watching and "listening" to them more efficiently.

Proponents might say this is the "smarter city" at work. But the channel through which citizens actively control their government or amass their own knowledge about public matters appears to be largely attenuated, if not completely missing, from this picture. The "connection" between citizens and their government seems to be more like the "connection" between TV watchers and Hollywood producers checking their nightly Nielsen ratings and adjusting their programming accordingly than it is one of citizens deliberating in a new digital Agora.

I sent essentially the same questions to Eisnor about how Waze could be said to be creating "connected citizens" if they didn't know they were in touch with city hall and if they weren't really able to connect to each other or participate in the decisions that city hall would be making with their inputs. She responded with these remarks:

Eisnor: I'm happy to talk more about connected citizens and our role. But essentially, you're talking about a few kinds of connection for citizens if I'm correct. Let me try to break it down the way I see it:

1. Connecting citizens to even greater information--their government bringing much more data to the table about mobility--things currently not easily available (and some that is easily available but still helpful).
2. Connecting citizens and cities by increasing the flow of information going back and forth between them about what's happening on the roads. For example, an alert of an accident coming in from the police and it being noted as closed by a Wazer so that other Wazers but also now the city knows its closed. (Right now cities have a very difficult time knowing when an incident is cleared). Our partners are actually very eager to see how they're going to use this in actionable ways - some obvious like reducing queue length [and] some less obvious like understanding clusters of accidents and incidents, volumes better so it can be used in urban planning and actual road infrastructure changes.
3. Connecting citizens to one another--Waze itself is a platform for connecting people to one another through sharing the information that will save each other time on the roads and keep them safer. 

Let's put all of the above in the context of Waze. Citizenship is already in many ways seen today by our roots in #3 above, although within the confines of the world of Waze. People want to share, they know it's helpful--they choose to share their reports/alerts etc--safe things. Things they choose to actively say about the road conditions. The fact that we are now able to pass this on to their local Departments of Transportation and that they are eager to listen and take action upon these reports is what's new and truly exciting. They are helping their cities and fellow citizens who are not using Waze with the simple act of reporting something dangerous or slow. Our mission is to save people time every day and this program will help achieve this in a new way. 

This program is about the addition of #1 and #2 above into Waze. We are a great facilitator of bringing these two kinds of data together in the hopes of turning it into actionable information that will make our cities better. 

Maybe Corporate Apps Can't Be Civic
So, to Eisnor, Waze has already been connecting people inside the app, where they share helpful information with each other. Indeed this is true and it has value in the aggregate. But it isn't civic engagement unless and until users get to know each other or get into relationship with government as a result. You can't be a citizen "within the confines of the world of Waze" any more than a user of Facebook is a "citizen" of Facebookistan. Right now, a Wazer reporting an accident is more like a Google user searching for information about the flu. The aggregate affect of their actions may be to alert the authorities to a new road problem or an emerging health problem, but in the same way we don't think of that Google user as a connected citizen I don't think we can call a Wazer one either.

The problem with the whole Waze "Connected Citizens" program is that the citizen isn't really anything more than a subject of the public agencies Waze is partnering with. While it is true that the integration of Wazers' data with city transportation information will produce a better user experience, that's not the same thing as a better civic experience. I'm reminded here of Adam Greenfield's warning in his prescient book Against the Smart City about the politics being hidden by companies like IBM that are selling these "seamless" multi-million dollar operations platforms to cities like Rio. He writes, "By obscuring the meaningful distinctions between the two, the 'seamless integration of public and private services' makes it very difficult which set of actors is able to operate more effectively on our behalf, which effects changes we would wish to see sustained and which is more responsive to our demands. And yet these are the determinations on which democratic accountability is based."

For a vision of a much more preferable alternative, see Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford's new book, The Responsive City, which I highly recommend. They write:

In the digital era, th[e] bureaucratic system [of city management] is bound to end. It will be replaced by people and digital tools. These hubs of community problem solving will use both city hall’s data (made accessible to the public) and data generated by citizens themselves to tailor responses, engage and respond to problems, and even prevent problems from occurring in the first place. As the switchboard operator lived on the phone lines, these new problem solvers will live in social media—the connective tissue of community in our century. Of course, there will be differences between the new social media urban community and the switchboard of yore. Social media bring far more people together than the old phone system ever did, and unlike a corded telephone, these social media are ubiquitous and always available. Hence social media will break down barriers—between citizen and public servant and between citizen and citizen—and upend urban hierarchies.
Governments that embrace the digital civic switchboard will make it a platform for joint action with their constituents. Once this has occurred, cities will be able to better prioritize resources, anticipate problems, customize responses, and unleash the now-untapped resources of collaborative community action. Innovative governments will create new ways for citizens to make their voices heard, giving them the ability to provide input into regulations, budgets, and the provision of services. This new form of engagement will create better ways for residents to register requests for service or complaints. Beyond that, it will give citizens a chance to play a part in the design, and sometimes the delivery, of these services.

All this said, I think there is a way for Waze to become much more civic, in the sense that Nick Grossman was pointing to. And that would be by reviving a feature that was part of the app in its early years: groups. Before Waze was bought by Google, users who shared a location or a commute could form their own user groups. In Europe, where Waze took off earlier than in America, some Waze groups had thousands of members, where they shared information and formed social bonds. With time, they might have turned into a new kind of interest group. Imagine Waze as a platform for commuters with shared gripes and a channel to independently act on them.

Waze groups, Eisnor tells me, were disabled because the company didn't think it had nailed the design, not out of any reluctance to let its users self-organize. And as a start-up, they only wanted to provide really strong services for their users. "We killed groups," she says, because, "It just wasn't good enough. We didn't do a good job and didn't work well enough. We took out the ability to show parking when you arrive a couple of years ago and brought it back MUCH better as our new 'places' product.

But she adds, "[This] doesn't mean it won't be back." So, readers who are Wazers: keep an eye on this platform. It's still a work in progress. With time, it could become a powerful tool for civic engagement. We shall see.