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Detecting earthquakes with your smartphone

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Author Frederik Rother

When the earth starts shaking, every second counts. A new smartphone app could help provide advance warning of earthquakes. The app could prove especially helpful in countries lacking early warning systems.

It was a Saturday a few minutes before noon, at 11.56 AM, when the earth began shaking. A few seconds later the first buildings collapsed in Nepal's capital Kathmandu and in other parts of the country.

Nepal and surrounding countries were wholly unprepared for the earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. It had a magnitude of 7.8 - the strongest earthquake Nepal had experienced in more than 80 years. More than half a million houses and flats were destroyed, and at least 9.000 people died.

The first few seconds are the most important

When the earth starts shaking, a few seconds make the difference between life and death. "Five to ten seconds prove to be a significant amount of warning time", says Louis Schreier to DW. In addition to getting outdoors away from crumbling buildings, "you can warn hospitals, prepare first responders; these seconds are really critical to saving lives."

Schreier works as an engineer for the Deutsche Telekom Silicon Valley Innovation Center. Together with seismologists from the University of California in Berkeley (UCB), he and his team developed an application intended to help reduce the number of future earthquake victims. The app is called My Shake.

The program will officially be announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that began Monday (February 22, 2016). The public testing phase has already begun and is to last for one year.

"We want to be able to demonstrate that this network can pick up seismic signals in the wild. Those signals will be very similar to the signals that professional shake alert sensors pick up", says Schreier. Although the sensors in common phones are less sensitive, the sheer amount of smartphones compensates for this limitation.

Use sensors for earthquake detection

The idea behind My Shake is simple: Modern smartphones are packed with sensors. My Shake permanently accesses the phone's accelerometer, which is often used for step-tracking apps for instance, and detects shaking that's barely noticeable to a human being.

If the data fit the vibrational profile of a quake, and not the usual shaking a smartphone is subject to in one's trousers pockets, the phone sends the time, amplitude and GPS coordinates of the shaking to a UCB server, where the incoming data is further analyzed. If at least 60 percent of the phones within a certain area detect the shaking, the program confirms an earthquake.

So far, the app can only detect earthquakes. "In coming years, we want to connect our system to existing early warning systems," says Louis Schreier. "The goal is to warn people through their telephones and save lives."

Benefit for society

The innovation center has been around for a few years now. Its financing is provided by Telekom headquarters in Bonn, Germany. "Smartphones are the most widespread technical devices in the world," Telekom spokesperson Husam Azrak told DW. "The app uses existing technology, contributes to early warning, and even has societal relevance."

Louis Schreier hopes that My Shake will be widely used in countries that are vulnerable to earthquakes and don’t have existing early warning systems, such as Nepal. "All of the very same sensors that are used for traditional earthquake detection are available in your pocket. This reduces the costs of the seismic network, which means that in places where they don’t have a traditional network, My Shake can lay the foundation for a seismic network."

Schreier and his team actively involve the public in their research. This is called citizen science. They invite the public to download the app, become part of the network, and submit data that can help to make existing systems better and improve the detection rate of future earthquakes.

"The program involves the public, it's in the public's best interest," Schreier said. "It's everybody's application because it serves everybody's need."

Technical requirements

My Shake was developed and programmed in California, where there were several thousand earthquakes in the last year alone. Many of them are hardly noticeable and don’t do a lot of damage, but the region is vulnerable.

In California, there are enough modern smartphones and a good network infrastructure to enable extensive tests of My Shake in the upcoming months. A good network and a modern telephone are needed to for the app to work, which may present a short-term limitation in less-developed regions like the Himalayas.