Canadian Underwriter

App aims to create “worldwide seismic detection network”

February 12, 2016   by Canadian Underwriter

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Scientists at the University of California (UC) Berkeley released on Friday a free Android app that taps into a smartphone’s ability to record ground shaking from an earthquake, with the goal of “creating a worldwide seismic detection network that could eventually warn users of impending jolts from nearby quakes.”

The app runs in the background so that a smartphone’s onboard accelerometers can record local shaking any time

The app, called MyShake, is available from the Google Play Store and runs in the background with little power – similar to step-tracking fitness apps – so that a phone’s onboard accelerometers can record local shaking any time of the day or night, UC Berkeley said in a statement on its website. For now, the app only collects information from the accelerometers, analyzes it and, if it fits the vibrational profile of a quake, relays it and the phone’s GPS coordinates to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory (BSL) for analysis.

“Once enough people are using it and the bugs are worked out, however, UC Berkeley seismologists plan to use the data to warn people miles from ground zero that shaking is rumbling their way,” the statement said, adding that an iPhone app is also being planned.

“MyShake cannot replace traditional seismic networks… 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,” said Richard Allen, the leader of the app project, director of the BSL and a professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The lab operates a sensitive but widely spaced network of seismic sensors buried in vaults around northern California.

Three accelerometers aboard every smartphone detect shaking, and the MyShake app analyzes it to make sure it fits the pattern of an earthquake before alerting the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Photo: UC Berkeley.A crowdsourced seismic network may be the only option today for many earthquake-prone developing countries, such as Nepal or Peru, that have a sparse or no ground-based seismic network or early warning system, but do have millions of smartphone users, UC Berkeley suggested.

“In my opinion, this is cutting-edge research that will transform seismology,” said university graduate student Qingkai Kong, who developed the algorithm at the heart of the app. “The stations we have for traditional seismology are not that dense, especially in some regions around the world, but using smartphones with low-cost sensors will give us a really good, dense network in the future.”

Three accelerometers aboard every smartphone detect shaking, and the MyShake app analyzes it to make sure it fits the pattern of an earthquake before alerting the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Photo: UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley explained in the statement that smartphones can easily measure movement caused by a quake because they have three built-in accelerometers designed to sense the orientation of the phone for display or gaming. While constantly improving in sensitivity for the benefit of gamers, however, smartphone accelerometers are far less sensitive than in-ground seismometers. But they are sensitive enough to record earthquakes above a magnitude 5 — the ones that do damage — within 10 kilometres.

There are an estimated 16 million smartphones in California, and 1 billion smartphones worldwide.

“Currently, we have a network of 400 seismic stations in California, one of the densest in the world,” Allen said. “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.”

In a paper to be published in the Feb. 12 issue of the journal Science Advances, Allen, Kong and Louis Schreier at Deutsche Telekom’s Silicon Valley Innovation Center describe the algorithm in the mobile app that analyzes a phone’s accelerometer data and distinguishes earthquake shaking from normal vibrations, such as walking, dancing or dropping the phone. “In simulated tests, the algorithm Kong developed successfully distinguished quakes from non-quakes 93% of the time,” UC Berkeley reported. “Only when the app determines that the vibration is from a quake does it briefly activate the phone’s GPS to obtain the phone’s position and push a short packet of information out through a data or wifi connection.”

Allen said that he hopes that thousands of people will download and install the app. If successful, Allen anticipates an updated app that provides early warning within a year.