The free app, called MyShake and released on 12 February for Android users, could be useful in countries without conventional warning systems, say the developers at the University of California, Berkeley.
“We need at least 300 smartphones within a 110-kilometre-by-110-kilometre area in order to have a reasonable estimate of the location, magnitude and origin time of an earthquake.”
Richard Allen, Berkeley’s seismological laboratory
MyShake uses movement sensors in smartphones, known as accelerometers, to detect tremors. It then sends the information in real-time, together with satellite-based position data, to a central system that compiles data from other mobiles in the area and could alert the regions likely to be hit next.
“We need at least 300 smartphones within a 110-kilometre-by-110-kilometre area in order to have a reasonable estimate of the location, magnitude and origin time of an earthquake,” says Richard Allen, the leader of the app project and director of Berkeley’s seismological laboratory.
Existing earthquake early-warning systems (EEW) receive data from seismic stations when tremors begin and then alert the regions that are likely to be hit. The alert gives people seconds or minutes to prepare, depending on how far they are from the epicentre. Even a few seconds’ warning can help reduce casualties as people can run for cover, get out of lifts, protect children or safely stop vehicles.
EEW systems are expensive, however. “There are many countries around the world that are very earthquake prone, but have very few seismic stations,” says Allen. However, these countries, such as Nepal or Peru, have millions of smartphone users, he adds.
In 2015, two major earthquakes in Nepal left more than 8,000 dead and 21,000 injured. “In the case of the biggest earthquake, in Kathmandu, the app could potentially [have provided] a 20 second warning,” Allen says.
Hernando Tavera, a seismologist at the Geophysical Institute of Peru — a country without an EEW system — welcomes the app. “Information collected by a dense network of mobiles and accelerometers would be very useful for research,” he says. Benjamin Brooks, an earthquake researcher at the US Geological Survey, adds that the app “continues the ongoing push towards crowdsourcing that will be very important in seismology and science in general in the years to come”.
The first version of MyShake will collect and record seismic information, but will not provide alerts. “The more people who download the app, in the more regions around the world, the faster we will be able to develop the next version of it,” says Allen.