Social driving make life better for everyone – bar the privacy conscious

Some people are happy to share personal data for a better driving experience - but not everyone. Privacy is the one of the biggest dragons in the online world…

One result of the whole iOS6 maps fiasco is that I actively started looking at other mapping applications, and started experimenting with Waze for driving directions. I wrote about them a couple of years ago, but never got around to trying the app. Well, that’s changed, and it’s displaced TomTom as my default driving app. just as the TomTom iPhone app replaced the decimated GPS device a few years ago.

It’s partially about the directions – the app gives me the sort of routes I like to drive more reliably than other options I’ve tried. I spend a lot less time specifying that I want to avoid particular roads, for example. But mainly, it’s about the social interaction that comes with the app. As well as the service aggregating data from all the drivers using it, it allows you to submit reports for accidents and roadworks, which other users can see – and thank you for. Building a feeling of community while you’re driving is a pretty major achievement – and they’ve pulled it off.

The social aspect of the app really appeals to me, and not just for the prosaic benefits of the constantly updated feed of traffic flow information. Not getting stuck in traffic jams is great – and Waze hasn’t let me down yet – but the sense of other Waze users around me as I drive is surprisingly comforting. I spend a decent amount of time doing three-hour drives on my own, and on late-night runs, that sense of community is really valuable. Getting traffic reports from others and making your own – and getting thanks for them – makes the journey feel less lonely.

There are downsides. The “ting!” noise the app makes when you get thanks is very effective at waking up a sleeping baby – as I’ve discovered to my cost (and the annoyance of my three-month old daughter). And, more significantly, the shared location aspect of the app unnerves my wife.

Waze walks straight into the biggest dragon of the internet for many: privacy. It doesn’t bother me. It’s pretty hard to connect me as an individual with the little car icon on the screen, unless you and I already have a pre-existing online relationship. But to her, it crosses the creepy line. And that line lies in different places for different people.

While trying to counter my wife’s arguments against the app, I’ve discovered that there’s not getting away from the basic fact that the app is sharing your location publicly in real time. That information may not be in a form that can be used – or used easily, at least – but it is happening. That’s enough of a privacy violation to disconcert some people.

Even the argument that the “adders” car can’t be definitively identified as me holds less water now that the latest update to the app has brought with it Facebook identification. If you know me on Facebook, you can know which car is mine. That brings benefits, like sharing routes with friends, and tracking their progress if you’re all aiming to be at the same place, for example. I’d love to persuade a bunch of friends to all use it when we go on a group holiday next year. But it erodes the already thin layer of comfort for those who find the idea of sharing problematic to start with.

Fundamentally, there’s a trade off at work here, as there is with most services which encourage disclosure of previously private information. I’m sharing my location (and speed, and direction of travel…)  – but I’m getting enhanced information and a better travel experience as a result. That’s a good trade-off for me – but not for everyone. I’m left with the dilemma that, If I use the app while my wife is travelling with me, I’m effectively disclosing her location without her explicit consent.

This tension between disclosure and benefit – and different people’s reactions to it – is probably the biggest dragon we face as we move to an ever-more networked, ever more always-on society. Will we retreat from some of these experiments in sharing – or will we start redefining what we mean by privacy?