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What Makes People Love Waze More Than Google Maps and Apple Maps? Its Army of Unpaid Human Editors

November 26, 2019, 10:00 PM UTC

Chad Richey has a hobby, but it looks like a full-time job. By day, the Longview, Texas resident is not just a product manager for a public safety software company, he’s also a father of three—which is more than enough to keep anyone busy. Off the clock, however, Richey logs an additional 30 to 40 hours per week editing maps for Waze, the immensely popular driving directions app owned by Google.

Like the thousands of other map editors that volunteer for Waze, Richey doesn’t get paid for his work. He does it because it appeals to his need to help others. “I like to pay it forward,” Richey tells Fortune. “Coming from public safety, I am a helper.”

Every month, more than 130 million people rely on Waze to navigate the twists and turns of their commutes, road hazards blocking their errands, and traffic snarls slowing their weekend fun. Meanwhile, up to 30,000 of the app’s most fervent fans also turn to the mapping service each day, only for something more. In alerting users to lane changes, they’re finding a sense of purpose. In marking new traffic signs, they’re making their communities safer. And in translating the driving directions app into local languages, they’re making it more accessible.

And as dizzying as detours can make drivers—let alone cartographers—editing Waze maps can be like having a second full-time job. But there’s one big catch. “We don’t get a pay check from Waze,” Richey says. “But there are some great perks.”

The lay of the map editing land

Waze’s volunteer map editor community is largely self-organized. Anyone can edit a map, but the most diehard editors are so protective of them that they’ve created an organizational chart, usually starting new volunteers out at level one until they can be trusted to not vandalize the map. (It happens. In 2017, someone drew a crude image on a map of Antarctica and added a few locations, including “Trump Hotel is Nasty and Awful.” In Las Vegas, the roads were once changed to Star Wars characters.)

As map editors build trust and contribute to the community, the volunteer leaders decide which deserve to be promoted, and thus become able to make big edits in high traffic areas. Area and country managers sit at the middle of Waze’s volunteer corp, for instance. And the highest rank, level six, is assigned to people called “global champs,” many of whom treat their map editing duties like a full-time job.

Richey is one of Waze’s global champs. In September, he was invited to a biannual global meet-up at the Waze office in Tel Aviv, along with 70 of his peers from around the world to discuss what’s working and what isn’t. He says the all-expenses paid trip is one perk of his volunteer work.

Abigail Saunders, a regional coordinator for the southeastern U.S., who has been volunteering as a Waze map editor since January 2013, also visited with her colleagues on the Tel Aviv trip. It wasn’t just an opportunity to geek out on maps, she said. It was a chance to finally meet many of their colleagues— who go by usernames on Waze—in person.

“I have met and made many new friends over the years,” through the Waze map editing community, Saunders says.

“We come together and hang out and network and develop a true friendship and not just discuss map stuff,” Richey says. “We talk about family stuff.”

But for Waze staffers, these meetups are an opportunity to get the people who know their product best in a room to thank them, and learn from their experiences.

“A lot of times, you will write the software, the code and you don’t see the end user,” says Fej Shmuelevitz, Waze’s vice president of community and operations—and the company’s first employee. “Here you see and hear them, and this interactive feedback is what makes it happen.”

Life under Google

Waze started in Israel in 2006—before the iPhone had GPS, and when Android was still being developed—with the goal of seeing if people would be willing to help their fellow travelers to outsmart the notorious Israeli traffic jams.

It was a success, and Waze soon expanded its driving directions know-how to other markets. With a start-up budget, the company had to be both creative and disruptive, and updating maps was time consuming and costly. That’s how, early on, Waze figured out that cultivating a loyal user base could help it keep its maps up-to-date, for free.

“The idea was to be totally disruptive, but dependent on things that were cost efficient,” Shmuelevitz says. “Otherwise there was no way the startup could sustain itself.”

In June 2013, Waze was acquired by Google for a reported $1 billion, a windfall that helped the driving directions app build out its community. For instance, one of the biggest benefits for Waze, post-acquisition, was suddenly having the resources to pay for this much travel, says Shmuelevitz, who refers to himself as the “foreign minister” of Waze. Shmuelevitz acts as a go-between for the editors and the company, facilitating the two-way dialogue that he says is crucial to the app’s success.

While the Tel Aviv meetup is the marquee event for map editors, there are up to three local meet-ups that take place around the world every weekend. Waze sends employees to these meet-ups, so they can meet editors in person.

And though they’re now a part of the Google family, Waze employees say they don’t feel like they’re competing with Google Maps. Google runs Google Maps, which is closed to outside editors, and Waze is community-focused, offering an entirely different value proposition. In terms of review ranking, Waze narrowly out-scores Google Maps on both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. (Apple Maps is not available in the Play Store, and has no reviews in the App Store.) And though Google does not break out Waze’s revenue in its earnings report, the search giant does monetize the app through an advertising-supported business model.

For map editors like Richey and Saunders, however, it’s not about getting a piece of the tech giant. Their love for Waze outweighs the desire for a paycheck, making them a rarity in an environment where big tech’s business practices and bottom line have come under increased scrutiny.

The map editors “feel empowered by us and the people they are managing,” Shmuelevitz says. “We give them a lot of power.”

The human touch

It’s fair to assume that a company owned by Google leans heavily on artificial intelligence to keep up with ever-changing traffic conditions, local laws, and events like hurricanes and other natural disasters in the more than 185 countries where it operates. And while technology is important to Waze, there’s clearly something that sets it apart from competing navigation apps.

“Humans are one more reason why the Waze map and app is so accurate, compared to any other navigational app on the market,” Richey says. “It is the human factor, and you would truly not get that with A.I.”

Map editors’ duties run the gamut and include things that A.I. could do, but humans do better.

For instance, Saunders’ work involves a lot of management and coordination. She’s the vital link between state and local governments, Waze employees, and volunteer map editors.

During hurricane season, her role was especially vital, as it included getting a list of official shelters and road closures from government officials and inputting changes to the map that got people to safety. During Hurricane Florence, 700 households used the Waze app to get directions to nearby shelters, she says.

A few key editors assisted with the initial effort and setting everything up, Saunders says, then others from all over the U.S. scour for open shelters, activated evacuation zones, and road closures. “Most times, the editors in the area that have the crisis are not able to assist with the efforts, as they are trying to prepare their homes and evacuate themselves,” she adds.

Another area where local editors have stepped up to help their communities is translating Waze into other languages. By making the map more accessible, Waze’s thinking goes, more people will want to use its driving directions.

While Waze uses text to speech technology, allowing a computer to read a map, the local volunteers are what makes it more conversational and correct certain nuances. For instance, “St.” can mean “saint” in Colombia, but means “street” in the U.S. Of the 54 languages Waze is available in, at least 30 of those have been localized by its volunteer community.

It’s that local touch, and a love of their communities, that ultimately connects Waze editors, whether they’re from Texas or India, connecting in Tel Aviv, or editing maps alone in their kitchen.

“It comes down to the community,” Richey says. “Truly, it is more about being part of being something larger than ourselves.”

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