Scientists have a new way to predict earthquakes, harnessing the combined power of the world’s smartphones. An app called MyShake is arriving today on the Google Play Store, alongside an accompanying paper in Science Advances. Created by a team of scientists from UC Berkeley, the app turns your phone into a background quake-detector, scanning the phone’s accelerometer data in real time and forwarding any rumblings that fit the profile of seismic activity. With enough phones networked together, researchers hope they can build a kind of distributed seismograph, stitching together thousands of rough readings into a more comprehensive data source than researchers have ever had.
The app takes advantage of the increasingly sensitive accelerometers built into phones, which are sensitive enough to distinguish the distinct profile of an earthquake from the regular jostling of daily life. If enough seismic signals are sent in at the same time, the app will recognize it as the early rumblings of an earthquake and notify the US Geological Survey, which will pass the alarm on to traditional first responders. Notably, those early rumblings will typically come before people in the affected region notice any shaking at all.
Raising the alarm early
A phone will have to be placed on a flat surface for MyShake to work properly, away away from the bumps and shakes of the human body (known to researchers as "anthropogenic noise"). The MyShake team also needs at least 300 such phones in a given 12,000 square-kilometer region. "The real advantage of MyShake seismic network is the density of the stations," said Qingkai Kong, a doctoral student who worked on the app. "Of course, if we have more phones in one region, it definitely helps."
It’s not the first project to use smartphone accelerometers to measure earthquakes. In 2009, USGS began monitoring earthquakes with citizen-deployed accelerometers under the Quake Catcher Network, spearheaded by Dr. Elizabeth Cochran. More recently, USGS began a project using smartphone accelerometers specifically. In fact, it’s not even the first earthquake-sensing app to hit the Google Play Store. That honor goes to the Italian Earthquake Network app, which arrived on the Google Play Store in 2013 and has since been used to track quakes in Chile, Peru and Nepal.
Still, these apps should greatly expand the data available to scientists studying how seismic shocks spread and interact with manmade structures. According to Sarah Minson, who does similar work with the USGS but was not involved in the MyShake Project, the biggest benefit will be to places outside the US with few earthquake-sensing instruments. "If you’re a place that has no monitoring, consumer devices are a big step up," says Minson, "and if you’re a place that already has scientific instruments, then you already have monitoring and this is just gravy."