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Countries that do not have or cannot afford earthquake detection systems may soon have an alternative thanks to a new technology being developed in the United States and discussed last week at the 6th World Science Forum (WSF), in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Developers at the University of Califonia, Berkely in the US have spent the last five years developing a system that uses the accelerometer — a sensor that measures the speed of the phone’s movement — and global positioning system (GPS) in smartphones to detect tremors.

“This system has enormous potential.”

Richard Allen

The phone sends data through an app to a server. This processes the data and then alerts all the other devices with the app on the intensity of the tremors and an expected time of their arrival at the devices location.

“This system has enormous potential. There are 1 billion smartphones on the planet and they are rapidly growing in the developing countries that do not have high-quality detection systems,” Richard Allen, one of the principal investigators behind the project, explained to the audience at WSF.

According to Allen smartphones can currently detect earthquakes of magnitude 5 at up to 10 kilometres from a quake’s epicentre. With improvement in the quality of accelerometers, they will be able to detect magnitude 3 quakes at 100 kilometres in the not too distant future.

At the beginning of next year, the researchers plan on starting field tests by releasing their free app, called MyShake, to a few thousand people. “The idea is that the number of users will increase progressively,” Allen told SciDev.Net.

“Another advantage is that users will not just receive information, but will also send data back,” he added. This will help researchers model earthquakes.

Virginia Murray is head of the Extreme Events and Health Protection section of Public Health England,  part of the UK’s government’s Department of Health. For her, the technology is a way of increasing people’s knowledge of earthquakes and potentially saving lives and livelihoods.

She suggested that knowing the strength of the earthquake and when it’s going to hit will give people a lead time to find shelter. “It can lead people to make better decisions; it empowers them and their communities.”