New smartphone app detects earthquakes; alert system could be next –

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Millions of smartphone users could be the key to creating a worldwide earthquake detection system, scientists said in a study published Friday.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have created a new android phone app, MyShake, that monitors ground shaking activity by accessing phone sensors. The free app went live on the Google Play store Friday, and an iPhone version is planned.

Here’s how MyShake works: The app constantly draws data from the accelerometer sensors, already present in most smartphones, that allow for screen rotation and step-counters. The application analyzes movement data and triggers if it fits the profile of an earthquake. MyShake immediately sends the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory a small packet of data, including the phone’s GPS coordinates and the amplitude and time of the shaking. The app then records five minutes of data, which is sent in once the phone is plugged into power and connected to WiFi.

Based on the data, the lab can confirm an earthquake if at least four individual phones, or more than 60 percent of nearby devices, within a 10-kilometer radius pick up the shaking, according to researchers. In general, smartphone sensors can register an earthquake greater than a magnitude five.

See a video explanation here.

For now, MyShake is simply a data-collection tool, but scientists hope it can eventually act as an alert system that gives users a warning before an earthquake hits.

The app project, launched about three years ago, provided a way to unite seismology and technology by using tools already available in smartphones, study author, Berkeley professor and seismology lab director Richard Allen said. There are an estimated 16 million smartphones in California alone, and 1 billion worldwide, scientists said. A fraction of those phones could provide useful data by downloading the app.

“It became more obvious that we could tap into data from the accelerometers on all of these smartphones,” Allen said. “When we realized that, we sort of very rapidly started to see the potential.”

Programmers at the Silicon Valley Innovation Center in Mountain View, California, part of the Telekom Innovation Laboratories operated by T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom, worked with university researchers to develop the application and the code needed to connect the sensors to the earthquake data.

“We hope that people will go along with this to contribute to the science of early warning,” said Louis Schreier, vice president of the Silicon Valley Innovation Center and study author. “The goal that we’re trying for is to build a worldwide seismic network using smartphone application.”

Researchers called on volunteers and earthquake simulation tools to test the algorithm the application uses to make sense of the data it records. To start, researchers collected data on everyday movements from 75 volunteers who downloaded the app on their phones. Scientists also placed phones on an earthquake simulator table and analyzed the two data sets to identify characteristics that distinguished the earthquake simulation from typical activities, Allen said.

earthquake app 2.jpgThis illustration explains how a smartphone’s accelerometer can distinguish human motion from earthquake activity. (Courtesy Berkeley Seismological Laboratory)

When tested, MyShake could correctly distinguish between an earthquake and other motion 93 percent of the time, Allen said. However, he noted that the application has not yet experienced a real earthquake.

MyShake is not intended to replace more complex and traditional seismic networks run by the U.S. Geological Survey and others agencies, Allen said. An early warning system called ShakeAlert is currently being developed and undergoing testing on the west coast.

But, by accessing phones MyShake can create a denser collection of sensors beyond what is available through traditional networks.

The application could prove especially useful in developing countries that have millions of cellphone users but lack advanced seismic networks, researchers said. The application could eventually give users from “seconds to a minute” of early warning, according to Schreier.

“It changes the whole equation,” he said. “In that way, we could reduce the effect of earthquakes on our society.”

Part of the application’s success will rely on how many people are willing to download it, Allen said. The application is designed to run in the background without using up battery power. A user interface also shows historical information about earthquakes, such as the location and intensity of major events.

“This is a citizen science project,” Allen said. “We can use the data to understand the earthquake process. This will only work if a lot of people download the app.”

Qingkai Kong, a Berkeley graduate student, and Young-Woo Kwon of Utah State University also contributed to the project. The study is published in Friday’s edition of Science Advances.

The application, if successful, could prove useful when a predicted mega-earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest sometime in the future. An article published in The New Yorker in July prompted a flurry of discussion about the inevitably of a magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that could kill thousands and damage miles of coastline.

–Laura Frazier

New smartphone app detects earthquakes; alert system could be next –