MyShake app turns smartphones into an early warning system

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Of all natural disasters earthquakes cost the most human lives and cause the greatest damage. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death in an earthquake.

Researchers from UC Berkeley are working together with Deutsche Telekom on a smartphone-based earthquake early warning system.

They presented the MyShake app, which was developed in Silicon Valley in collaboration with Telekom Innovation Laboratories, to the public in February. The aim of the app is to pool Android smartphones to create a network of seismic sensors that can warn phone owners of earthquakes seconds before the real thing.
The basic idea is simple: modern smartphones feature an accelerometer that is used to run games, for example. Researchers have developed an algorithm that uses the sensor to record tremors. If the data correspond with the vibrational profile of an earthquake, the app sends the time, location and strength of the tremor to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory for further analysis.

Cloud-based software then checks the incoming data. An earthquake is confirmed by the program if at least four phones detect shaking and this corresponds to more than 60 percent of all smartphones within a 10-kilometer radius of the epicenter. Researchers then compare the data with those from conventional seismometers.

A warning will only be sent to smartphone owners, however, once there are enough people using the app and the system is operating reliably. Therefore in the current phase the most important goal is to generate interest in the crowdsourcing approach and get as many people as possible using the MyShake app. The denser the network, the sooner earthquakes can be detected. Following an approximately one-year test phase, the scientists hope to be able to launch an app update early next year that allows warnings to be sent to users, too.

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