Tech Talk: Waze and means

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WHY pay for traffic information on your sat nav when you can supply it yourself? Come to that, why pay for a sat nav at all?

Crowd sourcing – the art of generating an audience by spreading electronic messages like a virus – has become a popular buzz-phrase in internet circles, and now it threatens to undermine the business models of TomTom, Garmin and the other big players in satellite navigation.

They have traditionally made you pay for “extra” services like real-time traffic data. Sometimes the cost is added to the unit when you buy it, sometimes you’re asked for a monthly free; either way, it ain’t cheap. Which is fair enough because the data has to be licensed from third-party traffic companies.

But a new generation of mobile phone apps does away with all that. The idea is that you flag up delays, speed traps and other problems yourself as you’re navigating, and share the information instantly and freely with other users. Waze, which is available for Android, iPhones and 3G iPads, is the most visible of the new apps, and to say it’s free, it’s pretty good.

At first glance, it’s just another sat nav, with the usual 3D map showing your position. But a closer look at the menu reveals this is no ordinary TomTom. As well as the standard option to navigate, there’s an exclamation mark that lets you instantly log a traffic jam, accident or other hazard into the system. Your position is registered automatically, and the whole process takes just two taps on the screen. A further option lets you meet up with friends by sharing your current location via your Facebook, Twitter or email accounts.

Of course, all this social networking on the move is only going to work if lots of people are sharing information – but even though it’s early days there’s plenty of data out there. Other active users are represented on the map by cartoon icons, and as I write, North Leeds is a sea of them.

Waze isn’t the only free option, though. Google Navigation also has live traffic data culled from official and user-generated sources, and a useful pedestrian mode, too. But it’s currently fully available only on Google’s Android platform, not iPhones.

Skobbler is another app you’ll want to try, especially as you can use it offline to save data costs on your mobile. It’s not free but it is only £1.49 – and that suddenly starts to make a £100 TomTom look like an expense you don’t need.