If you have a smartphone, why not join others worldwide to help track earthquakes.
For the past few years, the US Geological Survey department and others want to know how cell phones can be used to monitor and possibly detect earthquakes. Inside of each phone are sensors that can be used to create a worldwide seismic network to help with the study of earthquakes.
A couple weeks ago, it was announced that The University of California at Berkely has released MyShake and MyQuake. MyShake is for Android users and MyQuake is the Apple version.
The app is free and runs “silently” in the background. The app has the ability to distinguish between natural body and transportation movements and ground disturbances. The goal of the app is to collect enough data to help track earthquakes in a way that may lead to a global early warning system.
The app offers four key features in addition to collecting and transmitting earth movement data to Berkeley.
- Recent: The Recent tab displays earthquake data globally with a magnitude of 2.5 or more within the past 7 days. Using a Google Map, the user may zoom around the globe to observer recent earthquake activity.
- Safety: Simple steps to ensure the user is familiar with how to take cover before, during, and after an earthquake.
- Senor: While mostly for fun, shake the phone around and you will see the phone’s senor record the movement.
- Past: This is another Google Map highlighting the most powerful and noteworthy earthquakes throughout known history, some dating back hundreds of years.
According to Allen, making MyShake required surmounting two difficult problems. The first was to develop a smartphone algorithm that “specifically characterized earthquake shaking, versus everything else,” he says. That saves battery power, because rather than the app sending out a constant stream of data and letting researchers back in the lab filter out what motion might be an earthquake, that filtering happens in the phone. This algorithm was developed after many, many experiments replicating earthquake-like shaking at a range of magnitudes as various phones laid on flat surfaces. (One major issue: MyShake won’t work from your pocket. Sorry, it’s too jittery.)
The second problem was “building an app that can monitor the accelerometer, and do that [filtering], without draining your battery,” says Allen. Thankfully, his team had parters at Deutsche Telekom that helped with developing an efficient app.
Going on to explain how it works, Richard Allen, seismologist and computer scientist at Berkeley, describes it this way:
When MyShack senses an earthquake, it does two things. The first happens immediately. The app sends out a rapid-fire packet of data to a central server. That data packet has the quake’s origin time, location, and rough magnitude. Combined with other reports from phones nearby, the scientists have shown that they can automatically alert other phones within the earthquake’s impending path—all within less than a second—notifying people as to the magnitude of the quake and how many seconds they have until it hits. The makers say that false alarms are very unlikely, because 60 percent of sitting-still MyShake-using smartphones need to report a quake for a potential alert to go out.
A few seconds is just enough time to jump under a desk, or slip into somewhere marginally safer—something seismologists know saves lives. This alert-feature is not on the app currently, but will be added shortly as an upgrade. First, the researchers need enough people to download and use the app to make sure they can work out any kinks.
Following the initial alert, Allen says, your phone waits until it’s plugged into an outlet and connected to WiFi, then shoots off a larger data file. This is “a five minute recording from your accelerometer, one minute from before the earthquake hits and four minutes after,” he says. As a citizen science tool, this is extraordinarily cool. This type of phone-based data set will offer never-before-seen resolution of earthquakes as they happen.
“Even the most dense seismic networks only have stations every 10 kilometers; here with MyShake you could potentially gather data every few tens of meters,” says Allen. That new resolution could “allow us to image and recreate the rupture of an earthquake in a whole new way, allowing us to understand the strength that we end up seeing at the surface on a new dimension,” says Allen. MyShake could also help transform how we engineer earthquake safe buildings. Imagine having many smartphones in the same skyscraper, for example: “We’ll have 3D measurements of how a building is shaking in an earthquake, allowing engineers to understand and design better buildings in the future,” says Allen.
Help geologists worldwide study earthquakes through your cell phone and consider adding the earthquake tracking app.
For more information on the app and the research: