UC Berkeley researchers create smartphone app to detect earthquakes

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Tracy Lam/File

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers have created a mobile phone application to put earthquake detectors in pockets of smartphone users.

The Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, or BSL, and the Deutsche Telekom Silicon Valley Innovation Center have created an application called MyShake that will collect and record earthquake data with smartphone sensors. The app is currently available for free for Android users with an iPhone version in the works.

A previous BSL project, ShakeAlert, utilized traditional seismic technology to create an earthquake early-warning system. MyShake hopes to eventually provide early warning systems in smartphones.

Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer at BSL, said the idea for the project came about after the team realized that while traditional seismic networks provided good information, they were not located everywhere. By utilizing smartphones to collect information, the team hopes to create a global seismic network, according to Strauss.

Qingkai Kong, a doctoral student who co-authored the project with campus professor and director of BSL Richard Allen, said many places — such as Nepal and Haiti — cannot afford to have the dense networks required to monitor earthquakes.

Consequently, the team started thinking about using features in smartphones to detect earthquakes and began to test whether smartphones could be used as seismometers.

According to Kong, the app aims to establish a smartphone network that would rely on everyone to help monitor earthquakes.

“The goal is to set up seismic networks using smartphones so we have smartphones on each of the continents, so we can not only issue earthquake warnings but also provide unique data for the seismology community and engineering community to reduce hazards for earthquakes,” Kong said.

The technology seeks to take advantage of motion sensors in smartphones to monitor the smartphone’s movements. According to Kong, the app has algorithms designed to sense whether a movement is from an earthquake or from daily human activities.

Once the phone detects an earthquake, it will send a message to a server at the campus lab. Kong explained that other algorithms will compile the results from nearby phones with MyShake and then send an earthquake warning with its estimated locations, time and magnitude.

The accuracy depends on the location of the user to the epicenter of the earthquake. The more smartphones with the MyShake app near the center of the earthquake, the quicker the earthquake can be detected, Kong said.

Strauss warned that the MyShake app remains in a research stage and doesn’t provide earthquake warnings yet. Kong added that the research team needs to collect and refine additional data to ensure that the mobile application is stable and accurate.

“We look to a point in the future when it will be able to be used for warnings,” Strauss said.

Contact Sareen Habeshian at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sareeenn