There’s An App For That: Detecting Earthquakes

5:23 minutes

Credit: Shutterstock

Developers are creating apps that can tap into the sensors in your smartphone to measure different aspects of your environment, such as your daily number of footsteps or your heartbeat. And now there’s an app to measure your surrounding seismic activity. Called MyShake, the app can detect earthquakes through your smartphone’s accelerometer. Seismologist Richard Allen, who worked to develop MyShake, describes the advantages of a crowd-sourced earthquake monitoring system.

Segment Guests

Richard Allen

Richard Allen is the Director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, and Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There is an app for just about everything. More apps are tapping into the sensors in your smartphone to measure your environment. You can track your daily footstep. You can monitor your heart beat.

Researchers have come up an app to help you detect, now, earthquakes. Yes, there is an app for that now, and my next guest worked on developing this app. Richard Allen, Director of the Seismological Laboratory, the famous UC, Berkeley. Welcome to Science Friday.

RICHARD ALLEN: Hi. Great to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: The app is called MyShake, right? How does MyShake tell the difference between an earthquake and the equivalent of a seismological butt dial?

RICHARD ALLEN: [LAUGHS] So as you said, the apps that we have on our phones, they already measure steps. They count whether you’ve walked upstairs, whether you’re running, things like that. And the way that those apps work is they’ve determined what the vibrational profile is for those motions for the steps.

And so what we’ve done is we developed a classifier analysis that can recognize an earthquake type of shaking as opposed to all those other everyday types of shaking. And so when you download the app, the app runs in the background, and it watches for this earthquake type of shaking. And then when it sees it, it sends that information to our server.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, So you get a list of all the earthquakes that people are–

RICHARD ALLEN: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: –sending you.

RICHARD ALLEN: That’s exactly right. So since we launched the app back in February, we have seismic data. We’ve recorded more than 120 earthquakes around the world since we rolled it out.

IRA FLATOW: Right. And how sensitive? How small an earthquake can you get?

RICHARD ALLEN: Well, when we planned the rollout, we were hoping or expecting to be able to record earthquakes greater than about magnitude 5, which is sort of kind of getting up there in terms of the shaking. But in fact, the app has been recording much smaller earthquakes.

The smallest earthquake we’ve detected, we’ve triggered on, is actually a magnitude 2.5 earthquake in Southern California. So we’ve recorded some really quite small earthquakes. So we’re very encouraged. It seems to be working very well.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. It’s not as sensitive as seismometers, right?

RICHARD ALLEN: No, that’s right. It’s very important to recognize that these kinds of networks that we’re developing now using smartphones, they are never going to replace what I think of as the traditional seismic network– the observation quality, instrumentation. Those networks, they can record earthquakes on the other side of the globe. And so that’s really important for the research that we’re doing, also for understanding the damage that happens in big earthquakes.

But our hope is that this new network, this MyShake network, with, potentially in the future, maybe millions of sensors, we can really understand much more about the earthquake process– how the earthquake ruptures on the fault plane, the impact it has on the buildings, how our buildings vibrate in the earthquake, just by virtue of the fact that we have so many more sensors now.

IRA FLATOW: So if the app can tell you when an earthquake is happening, don’t you want to warn people before an earthquake happens? Can MyShake do anything for them?

RICHARD ALLEN: Well, we’re experimenting with that. That’s certainly our hope. I mean, right now this is the first version. We just sort of rolled out the first public version. And so right now this is a citizen science project. So we want as many people as possible to download the app on their Android phones and run it around the world. So far, about 170,000 people have downloaded the app, and then we can be collecting this data. We can understand earthquake processes.

So in that sense, it’s very much a citizen science project right now. But our hope is that we can run this fast enough that we can also detect the earthquakes quickly enough and push warnings to people before they feel the shaking in the future. And of course, we’re working on doing that using traditional seismic networks as well.

So we think that MyShake can help make those systems perhaps faster and more accurate in places where there are high-quality sensors. However, the real value when it comes to early warning is the many other parts of the world that are earthquake-prone but have no seismic network whatsoever, but it turns out often have millions of smartphones that we could use.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, hm. That’s an idea. They all would all go off at the same time.

RICHARD ALLEN: Right, exactly. So for example, in Nepal, we had two significant damaging earthquakes in Nepal last year. And I like to joke with my colleagues– I’ve done my best to figure out how many seismometers there are in Nepal. And the best I can do is say that I think there’s about four plus or minus about six.

There’s a very small number of traditional sensors, but there’s 6 million smartphones. There’s 600,000 smartphones in Kathmandu. So if we can harness those phones, rapidly detect the earthquake, we could potentially provide a warning in places like Nepal.

IRA FLATOW: And the app’s available on all the cellphone flavors?

RICHARD ALLEN: It is not. Right now the app is only available to Android users. So you can down it from the Google Play Store, if you just go to the Google Play Store and you type in MyShake. You can also go to the website, myshake.berkeley.edu, and get the app.

So right now it’s just Android phones. And the reason is that there are actually many more Android phones around the world than there are iPhones. But of course, we want to have an iPhone version as well, and so we’re currently working on that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Maybe someone listening will help you out with that.

RICHARD ALLEN: That would be great.

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating. Thank you very much, Dr. Allen.

RICHARD ALLEN: Great to talk to you. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Richard Allen, Director of the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley.

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