Scientists have developed an app that crowdsources ground-shaking information from smartphones to detect earthquakes and eventually warns users of impending jolts from nearby quakes.
The app called MyShake, developed by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, runs in the background and draws little power, so that a phone's onboard accelerometers can record local shaking any time of the day or night.
For now, the app only collects information from the accelerometers, analyses it and, if it fits the vibrational profile of a quake, relays it and the phone's Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory in California for analysis.
Since it was first released in English in February this year, more than 170,000 people have downloaded the app from around the world, and on any given day 11,000 phones provide data to the system.
In these three months, the network has recorded earthquakes in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and across North America, including induced earthquakes in Oklahoma.
The system has recorded earthquakes as small as magnitude 2.5 and as large as the April 16 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Ecuador.
Once enough people are using the app and the bugs are worked out, UC Berkeley seismologists plan to use the data to warn people miles from ground zero that shaking is rumbling their way.
"We think MyShake can make earthquake early warning faster and more accurate in areas that have a traditional seismic network, such as Japan, and can provide life-saving early warning in countries that have no seismic network," said Richard Allen, the leader of the app project, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.
"In my opinion, this is cutting-edge research that will transform seismology," said UC Berkeley graduate student Qingkai Kong, who developed the algorithm at the heart of the app.
"The stations we have for traditional seismology are not that dense, especially in some regions around the world, but using smartphones with low-cost sensors will give us a really good, dense network in the future," said Kong.