UC Berkeley app aids Google in detecting earthquakes

Photo of an earthquake alert on an Android phone
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff
Google is implementing features of the UC Berkeley app MyShake, which helps detect earthquakes, on Android devices in California.

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Features of a UC Berkeley app are being implemented by Google, allowing earthquakes to be automatically detected with just a smartphone.

Google announced Tuesday that features of the UC Berkeley app MyShake will be embedded in Android operating systems in California. MyShake delivers ShakeAlert messages, or earthquake alerts.

“One of the challenges in seismology is simply the lack of data,” said UC Berkeley researcher Richard Allen.So, the primary goal of the MyShake app was to turn everybody’s smartphone into a seismic sensor.”

According to Allen, MyShake is available to iPhone and Android users to be early detectors and help users in the face of an impending earthquake. When a phone is plugged in and stationary, it goes into an earthquake-monitoring mode. This allows the phone to record information about an earthquake and send it to the app’s servers.

The data is then used to detect the magnitude of the earthquake.

UC Berkeley researcher Qingkai Kong said the app utilizes a smartphone’s accelerometer. Accelerometers are typically used to sense motion. For instance, they can record a user’s steps when walking with a phone or adjust a phone’s display when it detects the user changing their phone’s orientation.

“In a thunderstorm, we can see the lightning before we hear the sound,” Kong said in an email.

The app performs in a similar manner, according to Kong. Phones are able to sense the earthquake before users feel it, as the app’s electronic signal travels faster than an earthquake’s seismic wave does. A warning message then arrives on users’ phones

Allen added that the app also provides additional information on staying safe during an earthquake, including tips on earthquake preparedness and ways to communicate with family and friends in the aftermath.

Because the app informs users before shaking occurs, Kong said individuals can use the few seconds of preparation to protect themselves or safeguard belongings. Kong added that BART could benefit as well, by slowing trains in order to avoid earthquake-related accidents, such as derailing.

Kong added that partnering with Google allows the app’s features to be accessed at a larger scale.

“One of the great things about California is that there’s already a large system of seismometers,” said Google spokesperson Kaori Miyake in an email. “Once an earthquake has been detected by (U.S. Geological Survey’s) ShakeAlert system, alerts need to be sent to millions of users really quickly, which is a tough problem, and is something that Android is able to help with.”

A Google press release states that users will also be able to Google phrases such as “earthquake” or “earthquake near me” and find information about earthquake activity in their area.

The system is currently being tested in California. According to Google, the Android-based earthquake alerts will be expanded to more states and countries in the coming year.

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KellyNguyen_DC.