Smartphones lay on a shake table to record accelerometer data.
Cell phones record data atop a shake table during testing to simulate the motions of an earthquake. Credit: Berkeley Seismology Laboratory

An app released by a research team at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory could someday provide early earthquake warnings around the globe, upending the traditional way of monitoring earthquakes worldwide.

The system could cut costs and time associated with maintaining traditional seismic networks.

The app, MyShake, monitors the movement of cell phones and records shaking when earthquake-like motion occurs. If many phones within an area trigger at once, the app detects an earthquake. If implemented on a large scale, the system could cut costs and time associated with maintaining traditional seismic networks.

More than 980 earthquakes have been recorded by MyShake since its public release in 2016, and more than 320,000 users have downloaded the app.

At this point, MyShake does not issue alerts based on data collected by phones but instead stores the data on servers for further study. The research team hopes that the app will create early earthquake warning alerts in the future, which could benefit nearly 3 billion cell phone users worldwide.

Berkeley scientist Qingkai Kong will present information about the app on Monday, 9 December, at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019 in San Francisco.

Shake Like an Earthquake

The power of MyShake lies in its ability to detect earthquake-like shaking using accelerometers. Smartphones have accelerometers built into them, and these tools measure the changes in acceleration as we move our phones. The accelerometer tells the phone when to rotate the screen and helps our phones track our steps.

The research team trained an algorithm to use the accelerometers to recognize telltale signs of earthquakes in motion. They first asked 100 volunteers at Berkeley to track everyday motions on their phones for 6 months. They then compared these motions with accelerometer measurements of simulated earthquakes from phones on a shake table and earthquake data from seismic sensors. The resulting algorithm can rapidly recognize patterns and categorize all motions as either earthquake-like or non-earthquake-like.

More than 200 phones triggered during the magnitude 5.2 earthquake in Borrego Springs in 2016.

During an earthquake in Borrego Springs in Southern California on 10 June 2016, the researchers saw the app in action: More than 200 phones triggered during the magnitude 5.2 earthquake, according to a paper in Pure and Applied Geophysics.

The app can’t detect every earthquake, however. It has a higher success tracking earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 and above, and the phone monitors movement only once a phone has been resting in place for more than 30 minutes. The app also relies on people taking the time to download it. Kong said that including the technology as part of mainstream apps or even a phone’s operating system could be one way to spread the technology.

Sending Out an SOS

If MyShake can detect earthquakes, could it also issue emergency alerts in real time?

A few extra seconds can save lives by allowing people to drop and cover, as well as trigger safety mechanisms to slow public transit, open fire doors, and stop surgeries. Several countries, including South Korea, Mexico, Japan, and Taiwan, have earthquake early-warning systems that can issue alerts before shaking begins. The state of California recently began its own statewide early-warning system called ShakeAlert.

But installing seismic networks for early-warning systems can be costly. Congress allocated $21.1 million for ShakeAlert for the year 2019 alone. And installing hundreds of sensors for ShakeAlert took a collaboration between universities and government agencies that spanned decades.

In contrast, MyShake can be downloaded for free from Google Play or the iTunes Store and be instantly available for use wherever people take their phones.

Computer simulations by the team, reported in Pure and Applied Geophysics, suggest that only a small fraction of the population would need to download the app for it to be effective.

The team’s ultimate goal is to deliver alerts from smartphone detection alone.

If just 0.1% of the population of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi had the app during their magnitude 7.4 earthquake in 2018, simulations suggest that residents in the city of Palu could have had 15.6 seconds of warning before the destructive shaking began. The earthquake and tsunami killed over 2,000 people.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said that his team’s ultimate goal is to deliver alerts from smartphone detection alone.

“If we can do that, you can basically do earthquake early warnings wherever there are smartphones,” Allen said. “And at this point, there are smartphones wherever there are people, so we can do earthquake early warning around the world.”

The AGU Fall Meeting 2019 talk on MyShake will be on Monday, 9 December, at 8:45 a.m.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow


Duncombe, J. (2019), How to turn your smartphone into an earthquake detector, Eos, 100, Published on 08 December 2019.

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