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Deutsche Telekom and UC Berkeley turn smartphones into earthquake sensors

Staff writer |
Deutsche Telekom and the University of California, Berkeley, jointly push forward early earthquake warning.

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The free Android app is available from the Google Playstore and an iPhone app is also planned.
Developed by UC Berkeley and the Telekom Innovation Laboratories in Silicon Valley, the MyShake application taps into a smartphone's ability to record ground shaking from an earthquake, with the goal of creating a worldwide seismic detection network that could eventually warn users of impending jolts from nearby quakes.

Especially for many earthquake-prone developing countries such as Nepal or Peru, MyShake could warn potentially affected persons valuable seconds earlier and, ideally, safe lives.

These countries currently have either only a sparse ground-based seismic network or early warning system, or none at all – but do have millions of smartphone users.

The free Android app is available from the Google Playstore and an iPhone app is also planned.

MyShake is based on an algorithm developed by UC Berkeley seismologists. Programmers of the Silicon Valley Innovation Ce

nter, which is part of the Deutsche Telekom T-Labs, turned it into an app. For now, the app only collects information from the smartphone's built-in accelerometers, analyzes it and, if it corresponds to the vibrational profile of a quake, relays the time and amplitude of the shaking as well as the phone's GPS coordinates to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory for analysis.

Cloud-based software constantly reviews all incoming data and, if at least four phones detect shaking and this represents more than 60 percent of all phones within a 10-kilometer radius of the epicenter, the program confirms an earthquake.

The researchers cross-check this with the California Integrated Seismic Network, which monitors earth movement all over the state using underground seismometers.

The app continually records accelerometer data, and after a confirmed earthquake will also send five minutes of data to the researchers, starting one minute before the quake and ending four minutes after. This happens only when the phone is plugged in and connected to a WiFi network, however.

While constantly improving in sensitivity for the benefit of gamers, smartphone accelerometers are, however, 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 10 kilometers.

And what these accelerometers lack in sensitivity, they make up for in their omnipresence: There are an estimated 16 million smartphones in California, and 1 billion smartphones worldwide.

Once enough people are using it and the bugs fixed, UC Berkeley seismologists plan to warn people miles from ground zero that shaking is rumbling their way. The scientists anticipate an updated app that provides such warnings within a year.

MyShake runs in the background with little power, allowing the phone's onboard accelerometers to record local shaking at any time of the day or night without constricting the user.

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