Waze in the South Pacific

by Brian on July 24, 2013

in Technology,Travel

Dressed up for wedding in BaliThat Waze is one of Israel’s biggest hi-tech success stories of the last year – perhaps even the last decade – is old news by now. The crowd-sourced mapping and traffic app has saved countless hours and hassles by travelers around the world. But just how far has Waze penetrated? Would it work on, say, a small island in the South Pacific where, not entirely coincidentally, my wife and I just spent two weeks for our 25th wedding anniversary?

The answer, incredibly, was…yes. It surprised not only us, but our tech savvy tour guide, Rucina, who was our travel planner and cultural guru for an incredible vacation in Bali. A maven on her iPhone, we communicated (when we weren’t actually together) entirely by Whatsapp and email. Bali, it turns out, has excellent connectivity and cheap 3G is available on most parts of the island. I bought a local SIM card with 1.2 GB of data for under $20.

Driving in Bali is a little less sophisticated, however. While roads in the main tourist destinations are well paved and there are even working traffic lights (which drivers obey…mostly), going off the beaten track – which is what we did with Rucina, whether on the way to a Balinese wedding or a Temple ceremony in a hidden village in the middle of the rice fields well after dark – involves traveling on bemused and bedeviled one lane roads that have seen neither better days nor street names.

But Waze knows Bali, perhaps not as thoroughly as downtown Jerusalem, but well enough so that, after we told Rucina about the app, she quickly downloaded it and eagerly typed in the address of the wedding we were to attend as her guests.

Could Waze find the family home on an unmarked side street where the wedding was to take place? It did and our car was soon filled with Waze’s familiar female intoned demands (“at the roundabout, take the second exit”). Ketut, our driver, was less inclined to kowtow to instructions from an iPhone, but Waze even knew about one of Ketut’s insider shortcuts. Driver and passengers were suitably impressed.

Later that day, I opened Waze and it correctly showed a very nasty back up on Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road (so named because it ends at the Sacred Monkey Forest).

Now, Bali is a not a big place – there are just 4 million inhabitants across the entire island – but Waze only needs 3% of drivers to be using the app to properly predict traffic jams, Uri Levine, the company’s co-founder and president, explained to me in 2011 when I interviewed him for an article I was writing.

Bali may seem to have a lot of cars – its roads are perpetually packed – but that’s more to do with its evolving infrastructure than total volume. (The country only recently permitted an elevated highway to be built, for example; there is a taboo on people being “above” other people – most houses are laid out on only on one level as a result, leading to a tourist-spawned sprawl which is rapidly eating away at the picturesque countryside.)

The Jakarta Post estimated that in 2011 the total number of cars was less than 400,000. (There are close to 2 million vehicles, but 80 percent are motorcycles.) The day after Waze had successfully navigated us to the wedding and later urged us to avoid those pesky monkeys, Rucina sent me a Whatsapp: there are 1,608 people registered as Waze users in Bali. That’s not quite the 12,000 that would constitute Levine’s magic 3%, but it’s closer than I’d have expected for a country still in the process of pulling itself out of the third world.

We didn’t rely on Waze in Bali like we do in Israel or when traveling to the U.S. or Europe – we were more often hiking, biking or lazing around the pool than stuck in traffic, thankfully – but if Waze can break into Bali, which as part of Indonesia has no formal relations with Israel, then it’s no wonder Google saw fit to fork over a billion plus change to buy the company.

Incidentally, after we introduced Rucina to Waze, she asked her twenty-something son if he’d heard of it. “Sure,” he said. “I use it. Everyone does.”

This story appeared originally last week on The Times of Israel website.

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