Earthquakes are hard to predict because whatever unrest happens, it happens under the ground. But scientists have developed a new mobile phone app that will, if not predict earthquakes in the traditional sense, then at least help you know if your area is about to have an earthquake.
Mobile phones can be used as vast data collection points. These days, it’s a common occurrence: people start tweeting about the ongoing earthquake even when they are running for their lives. You must have come across an update like “Earthquake!” or “The earth is shaking!” or even “is it an earthquake?” This can be used as a vital piece of information because your tweets can travel faster than the shock wave created by the earthquake. So when an earthquake shockwave is on its way to you, you can be notified immediately due to the tweets emerging from the area near the epicenter. But eventually it is the phone that detects the earthquake and sends the message to the central server from your area.
The name of the mobile app is MyShake and its Android version can be downloaded from Google Play Store. It’s like crowdsourcing the act of predicting an earthquake. According to Richard Allen, director of the Buckley Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, “This is a citizen science project. This is an app that provides information, education, motivation – to the people who have downloaded it – to get ready for earthquakes. Those same people are contributing to our further understanding of earthquakes, because they are collecting data that will help us better understand the earthquake process.”
Every smartphone these days has a sensor that is called an accelerometer that can determine whether a phone is shaking vertically or horizontally. You must have seen this sensor in action while playing video games that require positioning or moving your phone in a certain manner in order to play the video game; for example, you tilt your phone like a steering wheel while playing a racing car game. The same accelerometer can be used to detect if your area is experiencing an earthquake.
The algorithm of the earthquake detection app will be able to differentiate between the normal shake and the shake caused by the earthquake. There is a particular shaking pattern when there is an earthquake. If that particular shaking pattern is generating at least 300 warning signals within the 60-square-mile area the system will be able to know that an earthquake is happening. This data will be used then to send warnings to the areas on the path of the earthquake shock wave. It will give enough time for trains to slow down and sound an alarm system in hospitals so the surgeons can hold surgery and give enough time to people to run out.
Although this mode of detecting earthquakes cannot replace a fully-developed USGS system but a collective presence of mobile phones can be a big help. For example, there is no USGS system in Nepal but there are over 6 million smartphones in the country. Even if a small fraction of the smartphones has the MyShake app it can send out an early warning to remote areas.