In the future, your smartphone could issue you with an alert, minutes before the next earthquake strikes.
MyShake, created by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Deutsche Telekom's Silicon Valley Innovation Center, is a free Android app that uses a smartphone's accelerometers to record shakes caused by earthquakes.
Though it's still early days, the researchers aim to use the data that they collect to create a global seismic detection network that eventually could warn users of incoming earthquakes.
"As seismologists we are always struggling to think about how to collect more data about earthquakes. We're data-limited in our finds," said Richard Allen, the director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, over the phone.
"We need more data so that we can understand the physics of earthquake processes so that we can better predict what will happen in future earthquakes, and so that we can build better buildings, and think of other strategies to reduce the effects of future earthquakes," he added.
The group's study is published Friday in the journal Science Advances. The version of the app that is also released Friday won't have the warning system built in yet. Instead, the researchers are hoping to draw on a global network of the app's users to feed them with earthquake data from across the world. The app also provides users with information on past earthquakes.
"The first generation of the app will be predicting earthquakes and sending data to our central server so that we can verify what we are doing so that we can see all the materials," said Allen.
The app analyzes the data it collects via the phone's accelerometers, relaying it back to the team's central server at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. The team developed algorithms to make sure that the app could distinguish between the shakes caused by earthquakes and the day-to-day jolts caused by a user jogging or moving their phone about, which they have to test in the app's first version.
According to Allen, the app will never provide an alternative to traditional seismic networks as the sensors in phones are lower quality in comparison. He said, however, that while traditional seismic networks only have stations every ten kilometers, given smartphones' ubiquity, it would be possible for them to act like miniature stations at much closer distances.
"This app can help improve early warning systems in places like California that have traditional seismic networks," said Allen. "It could also provide people in countries like Nepal that have no early warning systems some form of warning."