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Transit app Moovit takes a page from Waze’s crowdsourcing playbook

Waze, one of our favorite mobile apps, has proven that crowdsourced data can become the basis of a popular and practical transportation app for drivers. Now, Israeli startup called Moovit, is trying to apply the same lessons to public transit.

The comparison isn’t just for headline purposes. Waze’s founder and CEO Uri Levine is a Moovit board member and has helped shape the company’s people-powered approach.

MoovitThe iOS and Android app, which just debuted in New York earlier this month along with Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and Los Angeles, starts by offering static and GPS-powered data from transit systems and then applies an algorithm that tweaks it with statistical data compiled each day. That allows it to offer more accurate estimated times of arrival that adjusts predictions for the time of day. Moovit also alerts people catching multiple trains and buses about upcoming travel conditions and whether they might have just missed their next connection.

That already makes Moovit extremely valuable, said CEO Nir Erez, for both inexperienced transit riders and hardened veterans who just want accurate ETAs or a look at upcoming conditions. But Moovit works to add another layer of data provided by users. When a user catches their bus or train and leaves their app open, their movements get anonymously sent to Moovit’s database, which shares that with other users, who can then track arriving vehicles.

Moovit also pings a user with a question immediately about how crowded their bus or train is, which can be shared to riders further down the route. Users can also share information about accidents, delays, inaccurate information or provide information about the vehicle such as whether it has Wi-Fi or is wheelchair accessible. Erez said 95 percent of people respond to Moovit’s questions and offer feedback into the system.

MoovitA crowd-sourced system like Moovit’s obviously relies on a crowd to really make it valuable. Moovit, which debuted in the second quarter in Israel, is now up to 400,000 users worldwide including 40,000 in the U.S. But half of the users are in Israel. Erez said a city like New York needs only about 20,000 to 30,000 users to make its crowdsourced data useful. He said it’s quickly getting to that point, but until then, it can’t quite deliver on its full promise.

Another weakness for Moovit is the inability to go underground. When users jump on subways, they are unable to provide real time data until they arrive at a stop with connectivity. That can limit some of the data that gets sent to upcoming riders. Moovit is working on a system to better understand a user’s movement as they travel underground by measuring their acceleration and grabbing whatever signals it can get as travelers pass through stations.

As someone who travels on a subway regularly, that’s one of the barriers I see to Moovit. That and the fact that I pretty much have only one route to take to get to work. But Erez said that a lot of users actually have choices for their transit routes and everyone can benefit from better ETAs and arrival times. A Moovit analysis found that users are delayed an average of 12 percent over the time they originally expected to spend traveling on a particular trip.

MoovitErez said user retention is growing as people find more usefulness in the app. And that just makes the app more accurate as it processes more user data.

“If you provide a comprehensive and very accurate solution, people will trust you,” Erez. “They will be willing to use your application even if they know what their route is, just to get reports on trips and see if there are problems reported.”

Moovit, which has raised $3.6 million from Gemini Israel Ventures and BRM Group, has also launched internationally in Brazil, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. It’s gotten a nice bump in attention thanks to Apple Maps (s aapl), which now recommends Moovit as an alternative for transit information. But it also faces plenty of competition from Google Maps (s goog) and apps like Embark, The Transit App.

Where Moovit can shine is by making good use of crowdsourced data, something that has made Waze a killer driving app. That’s a differentiator and can help Moovit deliver more accurate information, as long as it can get enough users to buy into the system and share their data.

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