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New app turns smartphones into worldwide seismic network

15 February 2016

Scientists have released a free Android app that taps a smartphone’s ability to record ground shaking from an earthquake, with the goal of creating a worldwide seismic detection network.

Smartphones provided by Deutsche Telekom arrayed on a shake table at UC Berkeley for testing during simulated earthquakes

The app, called MyShake, was developed by scientists at UC Berkeley and is available from the Google Play Store. It runs in the background with little power, so that a phone’s onboard accelerometers can record local shaking any time of the day or night.

For now, the app only collects information from the accelerometers, analyses it and, if it fits the vibrational profile of an earthquake, relays it and the phone’s GPS coordinates to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory for analysis.

Once enough people are using it and the bugs are worked out, however, UC Berkeley seismologists plan to use the data to warn people miles from ground zero that shaking is rumbling their way. An iPhone app is also planned.

While MyShake doesn't replace traditional seismic networks, a crowdsourced seismic network may be the only option today for many earthquake-prone developing countries, such as Nepal or Peru, that have a sparse or no ground-based seismic network or early warning system, but do have millions of smartphone users.

Smartphones can easily measure movement caused by an earthquake because they have three built-in accelerometers designed to sense the orientation of the phone for display or gaming. While constantly improving in sensitivity for the benefit of gamers, however, smartphone accelerometers are far less sensitive than in-ground seismometers.

But they are sensitive enough to record earthquakes above a magnitude 5 — the ones that do damage — within 10km. And what these accelerometers lack in sensitivity, they make up for in ubiquity; there are an estimated one billion smartphones worldwide.


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