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An earthquake-detecting app sends alerts to people near the epicenter, giving them vital seconds to seek shelter
Today’s telephones can do many things: they are highly useful when we are late for an appointment, for example, and we can use GPS navigation through them. They save the day when we have forgotten to print our flight boarding passes, since we can download the tickets digitally. And now they can be used for humanitarian causes, too, maybe saving thousands of lives thanks to a project launched by the University of California in Berkeley, supported by the US Geological Survey and Chile’s National Seismological Center.
The project consists, no more and no less, of an app developed to detect earthquakes and send an alert to users in the area, giving them that vital few seconds before the disaster strikes to seek safety.
The app, MyShake, is already available for Android and the developers are thinking of expanding it to other operating systems soon. The performance of this early warning system, based on the use of functionalities intrinsic to almost all smartphones on the market, is constantly being improved.
Global Positioning System (GPS) and the accelerometer in your phone are the two elements that allow MyShake to detect and alert people about the coming earthquake. The accelerometer is the device that detects the movement and orientation of smartphones: registering when it is rotated or moved so that the screen adjusts to the vertical or horizontal position.
Following a host of tests and field studies, the researchers have succeeded in ‘teaching’ the app to differentiate between the movement caused by a possible earthquake and that produced by normal user activities, like running, travelling by train, carrying the mobile in a rucksack, or accidentally dropping it.
Once the device registers tectonic movement, however, it sends an alert to the local seismological center and other devices in the area by GPS, and this is where crowdsourcing comes in: a minimum number of devices must register the same movement in the area at the same time to ensure the alert is not an error. According to the developers, this minimum number must be at least 300 devices in an area of 12,331 square kilometers.
In future, for forecasting big earthquakes, alerts from devices closest to the epicenter, could be sent to users further away so they can save themselves, too.
The US Geological Survey estimates there are around 1.3 million seismic movements a year planet-wide, most of them inappreciable and harmless. Of all these, only 15 reach a magnitude of 7.0 or more on the Richter scale and these are precisely the most devastating, which MyShake is best able to detect. Earthquakes such as Fukushima in 2011 and Nepal in 2015, which both had disastrous consequences, could have been detected by mobiles nearby if the app had existed at the time they occurred. Those affected would have received an alert some 20 seconds before the earthquakes struck, and thousands more lives could probably have been saved.
With this technology, the next generations of smartphones will undoubtedly also become lifesavers.