Waze helps track flooding, and could predict the future
By RYAN MURPHY
Aug. 05, 2018
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Last year, Norfolk's Office of Resilience conducted a pilot program to track flooding with low-cost sensors around the Hague. The idea was to find a cheap and efficient way to keep the city apprised of how high waters were getting and what roads were impassable.
At the same time, the city had been collecting data from users of Waze, a free app in which drivers help each other avoid traffic backups or find cheaper gasoline.
Kyle Spencer, a city programmer turned deputy resilience officer, said the little pushpins that users drop to mark car crashes and flooded roads have proven reliable.
"Sensors were recording flooding at intersections in the Hague at the same rate that Waze users were reporting it," Spencer said.
Tens of thousands of Waze users drive the streets of Hampton Roads every day, logging obstacles for one another. Since early 2017 the city has been tapped into that stream of data. Every five minutes, the city gets an updated real-time view of its roadways through the eyes of those drivers.
Waze, which is owned by Google, has a program called "Connected Citizens" that aims to help state and local governments use the data submitted to Waze to improve transportation and emergency response.
And soon, that mountain of information may help turn the tide in the push for flooding prediction.
"We would like to not even wait for the sensor to tell us it's flooding, but we're working as a region modeling what is going to flood in advance," Spencer said.
"Where we'd like to go with this is tell the app that the road is already flooded so users know before they get to it."
Data collected from Waze users over the past year, along with other regional and academic analysis efforts, are helping to paint a picture of Norfolk's flooding.
The city hopes researchers from the University of Virginia can use the pile of data points to start predicting how bad flooding will be.
Rather than waiting for user input or sensor data, the city could then push out alerts telling people that underpasses will likely be flooded during the next morning's commute or that you may want to move your car before high tide tonight.
Further down the road, that analysis could let the city automate some traffic lights and signs to give drivers advance warning or get pump stations up and running as soon as they are needed, rather than waiting on reports.
The city has its own apps and emergency alert signups, but few people receive those compared to the tens of thousands of Waze users.
"One thing people use a lot already, no matter where you're from, is Waze," Spencer says. The service currently claims 100 million users around the globe.
While flood predictions are still in the works, Spencer said the flow of information through Waze has already become a two-way street.
The city pushes out major alerts when it needs to, like when Waterside Drive is shut down for Harborfest.
And Spencer is working on rolling out a feature where the city will automatically post road closures to Waze based on permit requests, so the app will know in advance when a builder needs to close a lane for construction, for instance. That's expected to go live by the end of August.
The city is also going to be porting over information from its Storm app, where people — mostly staff, Spencer said — log storm-related damage like fallen trees or downed power lines.
Spencer said around 80 cities in the nation are using Waze in some way, and that number may soon be growing in Hampton Roads. After serious flooding last week, Spencer said the city of Virginia Beach reached out to him to learn more about how it could use Waze.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com