Earthquake app promises detection and early-warning system

VANCOUVER -- Smarthphone technology is shaking up earthquake research with a new app that may soon connect millions of users around the world to create an early-warning network.

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Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have released a crowdsourcing Android application called MyShake that uses data from a smartphone's built-in vibration sensor to detect the presence of a quake.

The program uses a smartphone's accelerometer to detect the shaking. It's the same device that fitness apps use to count footsteps. An iPhone app is also planned.

The end goal is to develop the technology into a global, seismic-detection system that provides advance warning to the public and to emergency personnel about the speed, direction, power and arrival time of an incoming earthquake.

Richard Allen, senior researcher on the app project, said he hopes to incorporate public alerts within a year or two.

"The brains of the system, what makes this possible ... is how do you distinguish between earthquake shaking and everyday shaking," said Allen, who is also director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

A team of academics spent several years advancing the project, using shake tables and human subjects to identify the 20 unique characteristics of earthquake quavers compared to movement from routine activities, such as running or riding a bus.

A number of traditional seismic stations have long been installed across the Pacific Northwest to detect tremors. While smartphones will never replace these more sensitive terminals, Allen said the app could complement and strengthen the existing technology.

There are about 400 seismic stations in California compared to the state's 16 million smartphones, which Allens said means MyShake could more than make up for what it lacks in sensitivity with sheer numbers.

On the Canadian side, research from digital-marketing firm Catalyst revealed a 68-per-cent smartphone penetration rate in 2015, which translates to roughly 24 million devices in the country.

One especially valuable possible application for MyShake is the potential to offer earthquake early warning to shake-prone regions not equipped with traditional seismic-detection systems.

"That's the real power here. You go to places like Nepal where there were these big earthquakes earlier this year and there are very few seismic stations in that country. But there are six million smartphones," Allen said.

"In the city of Kathmandu, where most of the damage occurred, alone there are 600,000 smartphones."

The app's release follows last week's announcement of more than $8 million in both government and charitable funding to American universities along the Pacific coast for ShakeAlert, a chain of fixed detection stations.

"The way it works is we take the (seismic) network we have and basically put it on steroids," said John Vidale, a University of Washington professor and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Hundreds of upgraded and additional stations along the coast would provide seconds to minutes of valuable warning time, which Vidale estimated could reduce between 10 and 50 per cent of injuries and damage.

Some data sharing takes place between Canada and the United States, but so far no conclusions have been reached over what a region-wide warning system might look like.

"We need to consider British Columbia when we're looking at (early) warning for the U.S. because the earthquakes in Cascadia could start off Vancouver Island," Vidale said.

"We need to be watching the whole thing if we want to get the maximum warning and the most accurate picture of what's happening."

Teron Moore of Victoria-based Ocean Networks Canada said both his group and Emergency Management British Columbia are beta-testers for the ShakeAlert software.

Progress on either side of the border supports the bigger picture of earthquake early warning, Moore said.

"We're all on the same team bringing these puzzle pieces together," he said. "Earthquakes really don't recognize borders."


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