Smartphone app can help you drive your way around Vancouver

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      It’s the kind of trip every Vancouverite dreads: having to go somewhere that takes you anywhere near the route of the Sun Run on the day the running event is staged.

      I didn’t have much choice this year, as my daughter had something scheduled on Granville Island at 2:30 p.m. and we live in North Vancouver.

      All week I got myself ready for the ordeal, storing up patience and creating playlists to help us pass the time in the car. We gave ourselves 90 minutes to make the journey that, on a good day, we can travel in about 20.

      And I planned on using Waze to set the route for us.

      Waze is a free app, available for Android and iOS, that provides drivers with maps that have real-time map-navigation information that the company claims will save you time when driving. Waze is owned by Google.

      During a product demonstration in Vancouver a few weeks ago, Megan Kelleher told me that even if you know the best routes you regularly drive, “what you don’t know is what’s lying on the road ahead of you”.

      Kelleher was in town from New York to help grow the number of “Wazers” in the Lower Mainland, and she said that one of her colleagues in Toronto never drives the same route to work because there’s always something happening with the roads.

      Waze shows all kinds of hazards and hassles, from construction sites to potholes. What makes the information Waze uses to plot your ideal route so useful is that it’s updated in real time by the people using the app.

      Kelleher said there are 50 million active users in 185 countries using Waze in 42 languages. The Lower Mainland has only 22,000 Wazers, but she said that number was more than sufficient to provide robust—and accurate—information about the status of Vancouver roadways.

      Waze has begun rolling out its Connected Citizens program in Canada, which has the company entering into data-sharing agreements with municipalities and government organizations that can benefit from the information Waze is collecting and aggregating. This week, the City of Montreal began exchanging information with Waze.

      That information can be critical during disaster events. Kelleher said that during the blizzard—“Snowzilla"—that hit the U.S. Eastern Seaboard in January, the Waze app displayed the locations of 69 crisis centres and identified almost 5,000 segments of roadways that had been closed because of the snowfall.

      During Hurricane Joaquin in October of 2015, Waze shared user-generated data of road closures with the Federal Emergency Management Association and South Carolina’s Department of Transportation. Waze said the database was so accurate that emergency response personal were using the app to navigate.

      And Waze sent out alerts to some 175,000 users in western Mexico to share the locations of 452 emergency shelters that had been established in response to Hurricane Patricia in November of 2015.

      A week before the Sun Run, I used Waze to get from the North Shore to Granville Island on Sunday afternoon, and I was amazed at the route I ended up taking. There were a few side streets that cut through some traffic hotspots that only locals would know about.

      Therein lies the beauty—and the difficulty—of services like Waze that depend on users: what you get is only as good as the users and the data they provide.

      Trying to use Waze on the North Shore is pointless because the app hasn’t learned all the shortcuts that locals don’t even think about. But unless there are more of us using Waze on the Shore, that information will never find its way into the database.

      There’s also the reluctance problem. On Sun Run Sunday, Waze suggested a route that would take us over the Lions Gate Bridge and through downtown to get to Granville Island. My personal experience bristled at that idea.

      If I didn’t have a daughter with a timeline to keep, I would have followed Waze to see how effective the suggested route was.

      Instead, I turned it off and took the route I thought would be easiest and quickest. We arrived with 15 minutes to spare.