Maps That Live and Breathe With Data

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe real estate agents should start selling mobile phones on the side. Why? Because with phones, as with homes, location is everything.

As mobile phones become all-in-one tools for living, suggesting where to eat and the fastest way to the dentist's office, the map of where we are becomes a vital piece of data. From Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Travelocity, the companies that seek the attention of people on the go rely heavily on location to deliver relevant information, including advertising.

Maps that are dynamic, adapting to current conditions like traffic or the time of day, are the most useful of all.

The importance of such maps to mobile services helps explain why Google is deep in negotiations to buy Waze, a social mapping service used by millions of drivers around the world, for more than $1 billion. Although a final agreement has not yet been struck, people with knowledge of the discussions say that an acquisition could be announced as soon as this week.

"Context is everything -- where you are, what other people have said about where you are, how to get there, what's interesting to do when you get there," said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who studies mobile technology.

Google and Waze declined to comment on the possibility of an acquisition of Waze by Google.

Google, of course, is no slouch when it comes to maps. The search giant's Maps service, painstakingly compiled by the company over many years and augmented by suggestions from tens of thousands of users, is considered the gold standard of mobile maps.

For users of smartphones that run Google's Android software in particular, maps and directions are smoothly integrated into the address book, calendar and location-sensitive applications like Web searches and dining recommendations. Even for people with other phones, Google Maps still provides the back-end technology for many applications.

"We're seeing maps become the canvas to everyone's app," said Eric Gundersen, chief executive of MapBox, which provides mapping tools to a number of popular apps like Foursquare and Evernote. "The map is alive; the map is responsive."

But largely missing from Google's Maps -- and from those of other players in the field like Microsoft and Apple -- is the social component. The map is simply presented by the company.

With Waze, the mob is the map, and like a mob, it can be churning with energy. The start-up, which has only a few employees, has generated many of its maps by tracking the movements of its nearly 50 million users via GPS. In any given month, about one-third of them are firing up the app, and as they drive, they can share information about slowdowns, speed traps and road closures, allowing Waze to update suggested routes in real time. The most dedicated fans can also edit the maps directly to improve their accuracy.

"It's not just crowdsourcing. It's personal participation," said Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze's vice president for platforms and partnerships.

That sense of contributing to the common good is part of Waze's appeal.

"They created this culture where you can really help others," said Bret McVey, a graphic designer in Omaha who has contributed about 280,000 changes to Waze's maps in the year he has been using the app.

Waze rewards such passion with points and badges, and the top 500 or so map editors can get direct access to Waze employees around the clock to deal with problems, like adapting the maps of Oklahoma to show road closures after this spring's tornadoes.

In Los Angeles, said Ms. Eisnor, about 10 percent of drivers use Waze. In places like Costa Rica and Malaysia, Waze users helped create the first useful navigable maps of the country, she said.

The communal energy of Waze's users drew the attention of Facebook, which held discussions about acquiring Waze last month. Facebook users can already sign in to Waze with their Facebook identity and share their driving with their friends, and Waze recently added new integration of its maps into Facebook's Events feature. After the talks ended without a deal, Waze turned its attention to Google.

For Google, analysts and industry executives said, Waze would provide two benefits.

One is that user passion. "This is less about direct revenue that Google can get and really about keeping Google customers in the Google sphere and using Google services," Mr. Golvin said.

The other is to keep a useful map out of the hands of competitors like Apple, which has struggled with its own map service, and Facebook, which is battling Google to connect its users with their friends.

Jeff Carpenter, of Des Moines, who is a volunteer editor for both Waze and Google Maps, views the second point -- keeping Waze from others -- as the main reason that Google would buy its much smaller rival. "I don't think there's anything in Waze that Google couldn't have done over time," he said.

Google, which also allows users like him to contribute edits, used to take months to integrate the changes. Now the company allows some changes instantaneously, he said, and others are quickly reviewed. Mr. Carpenter said Google's maps were also better integrated into other applications. Waze must be used independently, which makes it much harder to use.

If Google does buy Waze, however, it needs to be careful to court Waze's dedicated users. "It's important for them to roadmap what's going to happen, for the community," Mr. Carpenter said. "Without the contributors, they really have nothing."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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