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Earthquake Detection and Early Alerts, Now on Your Android Phone


Android has now rolled out earthquake alerts as part of a specialized algorithm that is designed to detect earthquakes and then send warnings to everyone in the vicinity who could be affected by them

Hot News folks! Google has rolled out an Android phone-powered alert system for earthquakes worldwide! This has been out for a minute now, but not everyone knows about it, so it’s worth looking into. Basically, as soon as you opt in to this service, the accelerometer in your Android joins one data point of billions of others, all part of a specialized algorithm that is designed to detect earthquakes and then send warnings to everyone in the vicinity who could be affected by them.

This feature is pretty crazy, because it’s only possible due to the insane number of Android phones out there and Google’s smart use of algorithms on big data. Really it’s just one more example of the astounding innovative practices revealing smartphone’s potential. These things are for more than just social media, and features like this are proving it.

Google has teamed up with the United States Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services in order to send these agencies’ earthquake alerts to Android users in California. These alerts, of course, are those generated by the ShakeAlert system, which has already been in place and uses data that comes from traditional seismometers.

The major steps in Google’s master plan to help with earthquake awareness, however, are powered with Android! Localized results will show in Google searches for earthquakes, all based on the data that is collected overtime from Android phones participating in the linkup.

Essentially, the idea here is if you think you’re experiencing an earthquake, then you can head over to Google and search it up to figure out if that’s exactly what you’re experiencing, or if it’s something else. Once the system has become more accurate and Google is satisfied, the final plan is to actively send out earthquake warnings to folks who live in regions where seismometer-based warning systems aren’t available. This and other outdoor safety apps all have the potential to save thousands of lives from earthquakes in the future.

Don’t worry, though. The information collected as part of this program is “de-identified” from users. The deal here is that Google only needs general location information for this concept to be effective. Both the earthquake alerts and the detection system are opt-in, too.

The cool thing is an Android phone can become a “mini seismometer” due to the internal accelerometer, the device inside your phone which detects if you’re rotated it. Android’s system takes out the data collected by that specialized sensor to figure out if the phone is shaking (don’t worry, it only does this when the phone is plugged in and not in use).

Android phones are so sensitive that they can detect both key types of earthquake waves, which is simply remarkable. They can see both P waves and S waves. Every individual phone can detect if something similar to an earthquake is happening, but a large quantity of phones are needed to determine if it’s actually an earthquake.

To break it down to the technical level, there are two types of waves, like we mentioned above. The P wave (primary wave) of an earthquake is the first and fastest wave that comes out from the epicenter of any earthquake. Meanwhile, the S wave (secondary wave) is much slower but can be much bigger and cause more damage. Luckily, this system is able to detect both. This means that it can pick up the P waves of an earthquake and then let people know to prepare for the much more dangerous S wave.

This Google system is even capable of locating the epicenter of the quake and using these phones to determine its strength. The biggest key thing in the whole program is the fact that each phone which is close to the earthquake has the ability to help the people who are further away to be aware and potentially get away in time to avoid injury. Earthquakes move incredibly fast, however, and this speed means that Google’s Android-based warning system won’t be able to put a human in the loop at any point. This is because the earthquake warnings will range from “a couple of seconds” near the epicenter to 30 or 45 seconds on the outside.

Google’s eventual plan is to provide different alert levels for different earthquakes. That’s why the company has consulted with seismologists both on the design of the system and on how the alerts should appear. Over the long term, Google really plans to craft an API based on this earthquake detection system. It doesn’t plan on using this system on iPhones, but of course if the API comes out then Apple would be free to use it.

The really interesting factor, however, is what other systems would benefit from an earthquake detection API. For example, someone could build a device that incorporates this software to automatically stop an elevator in motion at the next floor and open the door, allowing people to disembark before the earthquake hits. Gas valves could be turned off automatically. Medical procedures could be remotely halted. Fires stations could be on alert, doors open and ready to roll. Airplane landings could be aborted if the earthquake was about to hit. Trains could be slowed down.

The possibilities, well, they’re endless.


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