Smartphones Could Detect Earthquakes

John Lister's picture

A new phone app is said to help detect earthquakes and provide quicker warnings than is currently possible. The 'MyShake app' has many limitations, but could theoretically still save lives.

The app uses the accelerometer that's built into most modern phones. It's a small gadget that measures movement in the phone along three axes (left-right, up-down, back-forth) and powers all sorts of features, including fitness tools and the way that displays automatically rotate and resize if you turn the phone from landscape to portrait or vice versa.

The idea of MyShake is to constantly monitor the accelerometer to look for unexpected movements which could be seismic tremors that are too small for humans to detect. It's based on an algorithm designed by researchers at two US universities and Deutsche Telekom.

Detection Method Still Not Perfect

Their testing showed the algorithm does a good but not perfect job of telling the difference between real seismic tremors and ordinary movement changes such as a phone being knocked or dropped. It was able to correctly identify 98 percent of simulated seismic tremors.

However, in other tests, it mistakenly flagged movement as a seismic tremor seven percent of the time. With that said, the idea is to collect data from multiple phone users, making it easier to isolate such false positives. Ideally it would be possible to use the varying levels detected by different phones and almost instantly calculate the general or even precise location of the earthquake and its severity before issuing an alert.

The testing showed the phones could detect earthquakes up to 10 kilometers away, though only if the quake was at magnitude 5 on the Richter scale. That's classed as a moderate earthquake and can damage or even sway some weaker buildings.

Early Warning Could Save Lives

While any data would be too late for the area right where the earthquake strikes, it could allow for a few seconds warning further away, which gives people time to take cover. The researchers cite the example of an earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people in the capital Kathmandu and estimate that their system would have been able to give up to 20 seconds warning. (Source:

One big limitation is something of a Catch-22 situation. The system would work best in areas with high numbers of smartphone users: the researchers say 300 people running the app within a 70 mile square area would be needed for decent results. Unfortunately that's much more likely to be the case in developed nations which already have the best seismic monitoring and where the smartphone system would be more of a bonus. (Source:

Another major problem is recruiting users. Although the app has been designed to consume minimal resources it does need to be running continuously in the background and monitor the user's location, which could be a deterrence.

For now at least the app is only being released as an experiment, so that the researchers can learn more about how such a system could work in practice and how to make it more accurate.

What's Your Opinion?

Would you take part in such an experiment? Is this a smart way of making use of technology many people already have? Or does the system have too many flaws to ever be a reliable guide?

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