Ihnatko: Twist and crowdsourced traffic app Waze really work
BY ANDY IHNATKO July 23, 2012 12:14PM
Twist doesn't help you get to your destination. Instead, it texts the people you're meeting at your destination to keep them posted on your ETA.
Updated: August 25, 2012 6:08AM
A few times a month, I make the long drive to my favorite comic book shop to pick up some comics and get lunch nearby. I’ve been meeting my friend Karl there for years. Trust me: I know the route well. If I encountered winter white-out conditions five minutes into the drive and turned the car around to go back home, I bet I’d inadvertently arrive at the store anyway ... on muscle memory alone.
During a recent trip for comics and sandwiches, I tested out two phone apps that are invaluable for regular commutes. They help you with your trip even if you know full well how to get to your destination.
Waze (http://www.waze.com/), which is available for every popular mobile OS including iOS and Android, is a free turn-by-turn based navigator with spoken guidance and a great interface that delivers lots of useful information without generating needless distractions. That’s great. But it’s hardly unique. Both Android and iOS (in its next update, anyway) include free turn-by-turn navigation, complete with speech guidance.
Waze is turbocharged by crowdsourced map and traffic data. Every Waze user on the road is automatically sharing instantaneous information with the service. So when you ask Waze for the quickest route, it can factor in data that’s just minutes old, and collected down to the local street level.
It impressed me during my very first tryout. I was running a quick errand to return an item that I’d borrowed from a friend who lives just a few miles away. I didn’t expect Waze to give me any real help with the navigation...I just wanted to get a sense of how the app worked. I punched in my friend’s address.
“What the hell are you doing, Magic Voice?” I grumbled, when it urged me to go straight instead of turning right at the first intersection. Cripes, by now I should know the shortest route to his house. “I’m turning right, Magic Voice,” I said, engaging my signal and asserting my independence over a soulless machine. “Deal with it.”
Annnnnd a mile later, I was stuck in traffic. There was a big construction project under way on the main road through my town. I thought Waze was exhibiting a common problem with turn-by-turn navigation. When you pass through a densely streeted area, an app will sometimes choose to send you off on a complicated route with several tricky turns, instead of advising a simpler, mistake-proof route that’s only a twentieth of a mile longer.
But nope. Waze tried to send me through back roads, to avoid the construction that other Waze users had encountered earlier that day. Nice. During my subsequent drive to the comic book store, Waze advised me to take an indirect route that I knew to be about 10 miles longer than the straight shot. This time, I did what I was told.
Google’s free navigation app (and Apple’s) rely on traffic information as well. Waze seems to be getting better information, however. I ran Waze and Android’s built-in navigator simultaneously, during an hourlong drive in the middle of the evening. Both apps selected the same uncomplicated route to get me home. Google’s initial projected ETA was more than 10 minutes off. Waze’s was spot-on.
If you never interact with the app while you’re under way (good boy...good girl), Waze’s servers quietly collect your speed and location info, and use it help other Waze users avoid whatever slowdowns you’re encountering. You can also contribute more specific kinds of data manually. If traffic has reached a standstill, you can tap a couple of buttons and report the nature of the problem and its severity. You can even note that Johnny Law has staked out Exit 21, and is doing every highway patrolperson’s sworn duty to encourage people to operate their vehicles at the safe posted limits.
I’m a bit ambivalent about that particular feature. From a user perspective, it’s wonderful...as the quality and relevance of Waze’s routes demonstrate. They’re accurate down to the slightest detail. During my drive home, Waze audibly warned me that there was a car stopped in the breakdown lane up ahead. A couple of hundred yards later, there it was. Nonetheless, I worry about sharing the road with the sort of Waze users whose eagerness to report a hazard to navigation might exceed their determination to not become one of them.
Fortunately, there’s a cool feature that’s totally hands-free. It’s “attention-free,” even. Without taking your eyes off the road, just hold three fingers in front of your phone screen. You can then submit a traffic report via voice, or ask Waze to plot a course homeward. I’d love to see that type of feature in other phone apps...not just navigators.
My only other complaint about Waze is that it sometimes seems a bit gabbly. I want the app to speak up and spontaneously redirect me when it learns that there’s just been an accident 20 minutes ahead along my route. I don’t necessarily want the screen to keep gossiping on about the incidents that are in the general vicinity, but which don’t appear to affect my commute in any way. Every time the contents of a screen in the driver’s peripheral vision changes, their attention is distracted, even if it’s just for a fraction of a second. That’s no good. You can narrow the radius of Waze’s reported incidents, or turn them off altogether. You should probably just turn them off.
By the way, thanks to community-crowdsourced Points Of Interest data, Waze can also steer you towards a nearby gas station with the lowest prices, as well as to the blueberry farm just a five minute detour from there that sells these in-SANE-ly good pies during July and August. All of the map info is crowdsourced, too. Once a few dozen people have failed to make the U-turn that Waze advised them to make in front of Route 1 in Dedham in front of Legacy Place, the server will figure out that there’s a hitherto undocumented “No U-Turn” sign at that intersection.
Waze is a great app. That said, I would probably favor Google’s built-in navigation, or a great third-party app for unfamiliar destinations. Waze doesn’t exactly hold your hand when, say, a tight cluster of exits is coming up fast and you’re not at all certain which one you need to take. But Waze is terrific for regular commutes in which the route is fixed and known, but the traffic conditions are usually neither of those things. The more you use Waze, the better it gets to know you and your usual routes.
A couple of weeks ago, Waze announced that it’s reached a milestone of 20,000,000 downloads worldwide since its launch a few years ago. So why am I just talking about it now? Because I thought it kind of stank when I first tried it back in (I think) 2010, and then I forgot about it. Those millions of extra users, and a wonderful overhaul of the user interface, have made a hell of a difference.
The second app I used during my essential trip to buy copies of “Silk Spectre” #2 and “Avengers Vs. X-Men” #8 isn’t designed to help the driver find their destination. Instead, Twist helps out the people you’re meeting there, by automatically providing them with adjusted and accurate information about your ETA. It’s free for iOS and was just released a few days ago.
My drive proved how valuable this app can be. As soon as I launched Twist and told it I was headed out to the comic book store, the app texted my friend Karl and let him know. I’d already set the comic book run as one of my regular commutes, and listed Karl as one of the people I was meeting there.
But: damn. Seconds before I stepped into the car, I got a phone call from someone whom I really needed to speak to. Then, I had to step back into the house for a few minutes, to send off an email related to the call.
OK. Good. I was finally off. When I reached end of my street, then and only then did Twist send my friend a second text with an estimated time of arrival, confirming that I was then actually in transit.
Damn, again. I realized that I needed gas. I detoured off the highway and found a gas station. There, I waited an ungodly long time for a pump to open up; silently vowed acts of Old Testament-style carnage on some jerk in a red Honda who cruised into the gas station and blithely pulled directly up to the just-opened pump that I and another car had patiently lined up behind; I filled up; I waved a cheery greeting at the nice lady as she returned to the red Honda (which she had left parked at the pump while she spent ten minutes in the convenience mart, because all of the people there waiting to pump gas were completely invisible to she who is totally indifferent to the needs of others)…
While this whole dark opera was unfolding, Twist texted Karl to say that I was experiencing a delay. It provided him with an updated ETA. And when I had finally completed the journey, and was circling the block around the comic book store for a parking space, Twist texted Karl to let him know that I’d arrived.
If Karl were an iPhone user, he could have used the same app to find my exact location. Twist isn’t an public social network site like Foursquare, incidentally. Your status and location information is restricted to those you’ve chosen to keep in the loop.
But Karl leads a fine, rich life devoid of the Twist app. No worries. Twist’s text messages included links to a webpage that featured a live map of my progress, plus a complete collection of all of the status updates it had sent him on my behalf. The page included a Google Street View image of the destination, in case he wasn’t clear about where we were meeting. And because Twist had correctly sussed that the address was a business, it also included a phone number, and associated Yelp reviews of the store.
That’s nearly a perfect performance. Normally, I’d pull over and send Karl a text as soon as I left the highway, to alert him that it’s time for him to hop on his bike and head out to meet me. This time, there was no need.
It could stand some refinements, though. As-is, the app sends an ETA when I depart, and when that estimation needs a serious adjustment. I wish I could set my own time or location-based notifications. If I’m meeting someone in a bar on the ground floor of their office building, the message “Andy is 15 minutes away” gives that person confidence to make a couple of final phone calls, or hit the restroom before grabbing their coat and locking up the office. Also, Twist’s predicted ETA wasn’t as accurate as Waze’s. Twist needed to send Karl a second adjustment to my arrival time.
But those things can wait for 2.0. This initial release has a lot of polish, and it articulates its core function well. It understands that several of these journeys are regular events, involving the same destinations and groups of people. I need to tap just one button every time I’m off to meet up with Karl. It works whether you’re driving, walking, or taking public transportation. It deftly pulls information from my address book and calendar, to present the most complete picture of this social transaction.
It also incorporates a feature that Google saw fit to include in their Google Now service. If I’ve defined a Twist (the app’s name for a preset meetup) that includes a calendar appointment, the app will nudge me to leave the house early if there’s hellacious traffic.
Both of these apps performed so well for me that they received exalted positions on my devices’ First Page Of Apps. They reduce the frustrations and confusions of driving. And they underscore the lack of common sense in enacting blanket “no interacting with mobile devices in a car” laws. Modern GPS apps, when used responsibly, aren’t distractions. On the contrary: by taking over the tasks of navigation and essential communications, they help the driver to keep their eyes on the road, and devote a greater percentage of their brain’s limited CPU power to the things that are actually important: driving safely, defensively, and alertly, and trying to work out if that suspiciously clean black Mustang two cars behind is actually an unmarked police car.