Environment & Science

New app turns your phone into earthquake sensor

An app called MyShake allows smartphones to detect earthquakes and send valuable scientific data to researchers. It may one day also give early warning alerts.
An app called MyShake allows smartphones to detect earthquakes and send valuable scientific data to researchers. It may one day also give early warning alerts.
Screenshots from MyShake

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You can use your smartphone to watch the earthquake movie "San Andreas" or download Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," but up until now, your device wasn't much use during actual earth-shaking.

Now, a new Android app hopes to change that by turning your phone into an earthquake detector. It's called MyShake and was designed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

The app takes advantage of accelerometers built into smartphones that allow them to reorient the screen as phones flip from vertical to horizontal. This same device also tracks your steps as you exercise.

The researchers created an algorithm that weeds out day to day vibrations from walking, running or passing trucks. Instead, it focuses only on the unique shaking patterns associated with a magnitude 5 quake or larger.

"So basically it monitors the motions of the phone, and it detects whether this motion is due to earthquake or some human activities," said MyShake co-developer Qingkai Kong.

Once the app detects a genuine temblor, it sends a signal to servers in the cloud that gather similar signals from other phones equipped with the software to determine where the quake started and how strong it is.

Of course, if you feel shaking, don't check your phone, it does all this automatically. Instead, drop, look for cover and hold on to avoid personal injury.

In a test run during the 2014 magnitude 5.1 La Habra quake, the app was able to measure the location and strength of the shaking within 5 seconds.

Kong said as more users start running the app, it should increase in accuracy and speed. Ideally, it needs about 300 active users for every 70 square miles - something easy enough to achieve in Los Angeles but harder in remote areas like the local regions bisected by the San Andreas fault.

Right now, the app is primarily for information gathering so that scientists can perfect their algorithm. But Kong said the ultimate goal is to one day have MyShake detect vibrations on phones near a quake and warn users further out, before the seismic waves reach them.

Creating that kind of earthquake early warning app is easier said than done. Developers still need to figure out a fast and efficient way to send alerts to potentially millions of phones in just a few seconds. It's also important to test what kind of message to send since users will only have moments to process the alert and take action.

Right now, the U.S. Geological Survey, Caltech, UC Berkeley and other institutions are working on a different kind of warning system called ShakeAlert that relies on sensors buried in the ground near active faults.

It's proven effective at giving researchers a few seconds worth of warning on shaking heading their way. A widespread system of sensors could allow trains to slow, elevators to stop and surgeons to halt operations seconds before the rumbling of a strong earthquake.

While ShakeAlert shows promise, it has been slow to expand from a prototype due to a lack of funding from state and federal officials. Recently, the system was promised $8.2 million dollars in the President Obama's budget, but by some estimates, it would need about $23 million to fully build out and $11 million a year to operate.

There is also a private company called Seismic Warning Systems based in Scotts Valley, California, that offers localized earthquake alert networks for businesses and fire stations.

Still, the potential of an app like MyShake is huge for places where seismic sensors are scarce, like Napal.

Kong said that quake-prone region is full of smartphone users who could benefit from one day seeing an alert telling them to drop, cover and hold on as shaking approaches.

The team also plans to start working on a version of the app for iPhones. 

Fortunately, his team worked very hard to make sure the app isn't a battery killer either.

"Based on our tests, the users don't need to charge their phone for the whole day, all they need is to charge the phone at night," Kong said.

The app also has some interesting features for users to play with. For instance, you can see previous quakes in your area and see how much shaking you would have felt in your particular location. You can find tips on preparing for the Big One, and Kong said the app also shows you the accelerometer working in real time.

The UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory had help from Deutsche Telekom’s Silicon Valley Innovation Center in the development of the MyShake app.