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Earthquake: Smartphones Provide Advanced Warning With New MyShake App

Feb 18, 2016 03:06 PM EST

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have created a new app that allows smartphones to detect earthquakes, giving users an advanced warning when the ground is set to rumble.

The app, called MyShake, is free for Android users and available on the Google Play Store. It can pick up and interpret nearby earthquake activity by tapping into a smartphone's accelerometer, the motion-detection instrument. It records the time and magnitude of the tremor and sends the data and the phone's GPS coordinates to Berkeley's seismological lab for analysis.

The app has great potential to save lives if more people use it. And in time, researchers hope to create a network of users, or a collective, real-time seismograph.

Berkeley researchers partnered with developers at Deutsche Telekom AG to create the app. Although seismic networks worldwide detect earthquakes and convey quake data to scientists around the clock, there are still missing pieces in the seismic puzzle. That's where smartphone users, or "citizen scientists" help fill in the gaps.

"For many earthquake-prone developing countries such as Nepal or Peru, MyShake could warn potentially affected persons valuable seconds earlier and, ideally, save lives," Deutsche Telekom said in a statement. "These countries currently have either only a sparse ground-based seismic network or early warning system, or none at all -- but do have millions of smartphone users."

A phone's accelerometer measures changes in the device's orientation -- it knows, for instance, to flip your visual display as you rotate it from a vertical to horizontal position. In the same way fitness apps calculate the number of steps you take, MyShake app is designed to recognize when a smartphone's accelerometer picks up the signature shaking of an earthquake, which is different than other types of vibrating motion. Such motion occurs at very low frequency and the amplitude is not as big as the amplitude for most "everyday shaking."

"MyShake cannot replace traditional seismic networks like those run by the U.S. Geological Survey, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and Caltech, but we think MyShake can make earthquake early warning faster and more accurate in areas that have a traditional seismic network, and can provide life-saving early warning in countries that have no seismic network," Richard Allen, leader of the MyShake project and director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said in the university's release.

The app would provide early warning systems to individuals, of course. But it's worth noting that knowing about earth movement even shortly in advance, such as 15 seconds earlier, has been used in Japan to decrease the speed of bullet trains to prevent derailment, trigger automated school alarms for earthquakes and tsunamis, and shut down expensive manufacturing equipment to avoid damage that shaking may cause.

While a phone's accelerometer is less sensitive than an in-ground seismometer, it can detect seismic activity within 6.2 miles and of a magnitude-5 or above level earthquake – the one's that really cause damage. 

"Currently, we have a network of 400 seismic stations in California, one of the densest in the world," Allen added. "Even if we get only a small fraction of the state's 16 million mobile phones participating in our program, that would be a many-orders-of-magnitude increase in the amount of data we can gather."

The study that details the mobile app's earthquake detecting algorithm, was recently published in Science Advances. Since the app currently only sends information to the Berkeley lab, the next step is advancing is two way conversation: for the app to be able to update users after the initial alert about changes in intensity, for instance. An iPhone version of the app is already in the works.

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