How Waze’s crowd-sourced data helped FEMA deliver the gas after Sandy

Close to 30 million mobile app users turn to Waze to tap its crowd-sourced data for car directions. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the White House saw an opportunity to use the app in a new way, following widespread gas shortages due to Hurricane Sandy.

Waze, Hurricane Sany

The government agencies called up Waze Friday night and asked for help in figuring out where to send gasoline trucks in New Jersey. Since many gas stations were out of power or were unable to open, the challenge became understanding where to send the fuel and who needed it most.

Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze’s VP of platforms and partnerships, told me that within an hour, Waze had a simple system up and running that allowed users who visited a gas station to get a system message that allowed them to report the conditions there. The users were able to leave a chit-chat message explaining if there was gas available, how the lines were and how long the wait was. The Waze app also displayed pins on its maps for local gas stations that were open.

Waze relayed hundreds of chit-chats back to both FEMA and the White House and sent the data along to Google’s Crisis Maps (s goog), which collected disaster resource information. After opening up a line of communication with New Jersey residents, Waze heard from users in Staten Island and Long Island, who also complained of gas shortages. Waze then expanded its reporting program Saturday night to those affected areas and turned over that information to the government, helping them target more gas stations.

Waze, Hurricane SanyEisnor said it’s unlikely that the government would have turned to Waze even a year ago. But after growing rapidly to about 30 million users, up from 13 million users six months ago, the app has sufficient reach to mobilize people and gather good data.

“We did not think there would be a fuel shortage and FEMA would need to talk to the Waze community but I think it’s a given now that a problem like this needs to be crowdsourced and government and citizens need to work together,” said Eisnor.

She said there are more opportunities for systems such as Waze to work with government agencies on tasks like relaying Amber Alerts or routing traffic around trouble spots. Waze, she said, will likely work on how to pass data directly on to the government during emergencies instead of relying on people at the company to do that.

Eisnor was also pleased at the response from users, who are becoming more attuned to the idea of assisting each other and giving back to the greater good through crowd-sourced tools. In future crisis situations, having a widely used platform and a willing group of users could play an even bigger role in restoring order, gathering information or providing need.

“Everyone was just helping each other out. Things can change when people are involved in massively-scaled crowd participation,” Eisnor said.

Image courtesy of Twitter user @MattVas