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Cellphones Earth Science Technology

Smartphones May Soon Provide Earthquake Warnings (sciencemag.org) 66

sciencehabit writes: When it comes to an earthquake, just a few seconds' warning could make the difference between life and death. But many earthquake-prone countries lack the seismic networks that would give their citizens the lead time to find cover or shut down critical utilities. Now, a group of enterprising engineers is looking at a substitute network: smartphones. Using smartphones' built-in accelerometers, researchers have invented an app, released today, that they say can detect strong earthquakes seconds before the damaging seismic waves arrive. MyShake, as the app is called, could become the basis for an earthquake warning system for the world's most vulnerable regions.
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Smartphones May Soon Provide Earthquake Warnings

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  • by MobileTatsu-NJG ( 946591 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @07:20PM (#51497915)

    I actually wouldn't mind buying a usb doohickey that has an accelerometer that sends info to a centralized place to detect and report quakes. I dont, however, think I want to spend battery-life on my phone for it. I mean, wouldn't it need to frequently check the GPS?

    • I actually wouldn't mind buying a usb doohickey that has an accelerometer that sends info to a centralized place to detect and report quakes. I dont, however, think I want to spend battery-life on my phone for it. I mean, wouldn't it need to frequently check the GPS?

      I think cell-tower positioning would generally be good enough. If you have thousands of users then the positioning errors will tend to cancel each other out. You probably don't need to update the position very often either, since most people spend most of their time not moving very fast or very far.

      I believe the main problems with regards to battery use are:
      1. Recording a continuous stream of accelerometer samples without keeping the CPU awake.
      2. Measuring the power ad other relevant characteristics of the

      • But yeah, you could also just take an old smartphone, run it off of a car battery and have the app keep the CPU and WiFi on at all times. The amount of data that you would send if you sent a 50 Hz signal without any compression is on the order of 2 GB per month.

      • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

        If only 5% of users have their CPU and data currently in use, then why wake up other phones? You don't need data from literally everyone who's running it, and it doesn't need to be going all the time. Besides, I bet a lot of phones wake in SOME way when they start moving.

        The only useful signal is when a phone goes from "long-term stationary" to "moving": if someone is carrying their phone, actively using it, or riding a vehicle, data from them is worthless. Send one signal when the phone first starts movi

        • Yeah, come to think of it, if you have a large enough installed base then you could just rely on the phones that are connected to a charger at any given time.

          • You need a control which means lots of other phones. Otherwise you could get false positives.

            Imagine this scenario. It's the night of the big game. Everyone stays up to watch it. You plug your phone into the charger and place it on the night stand next to the bed. You then start having sex and the motions cause enough vibration to trigger the app. Now imagine everyone doing the same. Right about the time you are about to finish you get a text saying we're all going to die.

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            What I'm missing is how will they know if it's an earthquake or just a car driving by? How will they know if it's in a pocket or not the big one? I didn't read the article, I'm no heretic, but it looks like they just want to install this on the cell phone that you're using as opposed to an old, no longer used, cell that can be put into a stationary position.

            Making use of old cell phones for something like that makes some sense to me. This? No... I'm obviously missing something because this makes absolutely

            • I'm not an expert, but I imagine they would do at least these three things:

              1. Correlate waveforms recorded by multiple phones in multiple places, i.e. look for a single fingerprint in the waveforms. If it's a bunch of different waveforms then it's probably not an earthquake.
              2. For those waveforms that match the fingerprint: plot the velocity that the waves would have to be moving at in order to cause the waveforms in those particular places at those particular times and see if the speeds are consistent with

              • by KGIII ( 973947 )

                I kind of figured that? I am not an expert, so I don't know either. It's just that I don't see how they're going to get meaningful data (with enough "at rest" devices perhaps?) and separate the signal from the noise. It is a bit interesting but, at the same time, I've oft repeated that it's kind of important that we look to continued uses for retired smart phones - I think that might actually be a more viable method. Slap it on a shelf, connected to the wireless, and then use the one in your pocket as the d

                • Yeah, the best way would definitely be to organise an effort to set up dedicated hardware.

                  Most developing countries are probably capable of doing that, especially now that you can pretty much get a used smartphone for free. Build a smartphone app, get some used smartphones from a recycling center, install the app on all of them, put one smartphone on a stable surface (such as a basement floor) in every government office around the country and make sure the office workers know how to maintain the system (kee

                  • by KGIII ( 973947 )

                    Seeing as we're now off on a tangent, I've actually pondered how to make use of all the old cell phones. It seems like it might be fairly trivial to use them as distributed compute devices. I'm thinking a project (I was interested because of my son's project) that would use the devices to sequence genomes on endangered flora and fauna from the South American rain forest.

                    Given that they're already DC, it seems like it might even be reasonable to power it with solar. They're "disposable" (or at least treated

                    • Sure, if you can find an efficient way to power them. I guess the chargers / AC/DC-converters that phones ship with are probably horribly inefficient.

                      Also, what happens when your cluster of phones all try to access the Internet at the same time?

                      The total world production of smartphones and tablets is now over 1 billion per year and many of those units have multi-core chips. The number of CPU cores that get discarded or recycled each year will surely top a billion within a couple of years. That is a signific

                    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

                      I'm thinking power over DC - probably straight from photovoltaic. It'd be trivial (I think) to power them with batteries that are charged from solar power - they could even retain their internal batteries.

                      Only one, probably a hub, would connect to the net at a time - they'd communicate with each other on their own network. They'd not all be connected to the 'net at one time - they'd all communicate with each other and then, I'd guess through a wired or wireless hub/access point, communicate with the 'net as

      • by rnturn ( 11092 )

        "I think cell-tower positioning would generally be good enough. If you have thousands of users then the positioning errors will tend to cancel each other out. You probably don't need to update the position very often either, since most people spend most of their time not moving very fast or very far."

        Seems like the place to put the accelerometer is on the cell tower. Power wouldn't be a problem on the tower. Plus, wouldn't putting it in my cellphone generate a slew of false alarms whenever I jog up the st

    • by langgp ( 599770 )
      According to this http://phys.org/news/2016-02-myshake-app-smartphones-worldwide-seismic.html [phys.org] MyShake only briefly activates GPS after it detects an earthquake.
  • by gwolf ( 26339 ) <{gwolf} {at} {gwolf.org}> on Friday February 12, 2016 @07:29PM (#51497985) Homepage

    Most of the public buildings in Mexico have had "alerta sísmica" for well over five years already (don't remember how long). Last year, a large-scale rollout was made so there are audible alert boxes all over the city. Of course, we are lucky to be ~500Km away from most of the tectonically active locations in our region, while unlucky enough to be sitting atop one of the most "interesting" soils for seismic activity amplification... So it's a very unique combination!

    • by gwolf ( 26339 )

      FWIW, forgot to mention, the typical reaction time we have is around one minute. Usually too little to have everybody evacuated from premises... But we have history on this regard, and it has proven a very important development.

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        FWIW, forgot to mention, the typical reaction time we have is around one minute. Usually too little to have everybody evacuated from premises... But we have history on this regard, and it has proven a very important development.

        One minute is not a lot of time, but if you get a warning, you can do a lot of things in that minute that will save lives and reduce the disaster.

        For example - gas pipelines can be depressurized and isolation valves closed, so any fires that start from the gas is limited to a very sm

  • by Krishnoid ( 984597 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @07:30PM (#51497997) Journal

    Let's strip a smartphone down and attach it to the animals that go squirrely before an earthquake. Ground motion detection enhanced with animal senses -- bears further investigation, I bet.

  • by plaut ( 42347 )

    obligatory xkcd reference: https://xkcd.com/723/ [xkcd.com]

    • by kaur ( 1948056 )
      This one also applies:
      https://xkcd.com/937/ [xkcd.com]
      • I was honestly pondering writing an app like this. A few RAD tools I know have an almost complete wizard-made solution for it, just add some flashy graphics and maybe a configuration gimmick.

        • Yeah, perhaps we indeed live in a morphogenetic connected world.

          I was thinking about an Tsunami App yesterday. As I'm in an area that was hit by a Tsunami 2004 ... it would need to rely on SMS so, as I for my part don't have internet in this area of the world (via the phone service).

    • by myid ( 3783581 )

      Re. the cartoon [xkcd.com] - I guess that could happen, if you typed fast enough. One time at work I was standing next to my boss A, as he was talking to B on the phone. During the phone call, a quake whose epicenter was closer to B struck. B got all excited, saying "Hey, we're having an earthquake!" Then the shaking hit where A and I were. So A found out about the quake before he felt it.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      USGS already does this. They monitor tweets for the word 'earthquake' in a number of languages. And they got a few seconds advance notice on the 2015 Nepal earthquake before their seismographs picked it up.

  • This is nothing new (Score:4, Informative)

    by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @07:38PM (#51498049)

    This is nothing new. There apps that already do this. For instance, this one does it [google.com] and it's not called MyShake. And I bet there are many more apps that do exactly the same thing if you just look for them.

    • by NotInHere ( 3654617 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @07:43PM (#51498073)

      Earth quake warnings in fact were a thing even before the concept of "apps" were invented (yes, probably the apper troll considers this luddite now): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      So yeah this now gets "upgraded" to the smartphone age: if you don't install this app and register with your email, and let the app monitor your activity, and whatever it does, you won't get an earthquake warning in advance and are probably more likely to die. Yeah, quite cool app.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @08:56PM (#51498463) Journal

    I do my best to avoid places with earthquakes, but if I ever go to an earthquake zone, what the fuck am I gonna do with those "few seconds" warning that this app would provide me? Unless I can somehow use those seconds to board a hot air balloon, what can I possibly do with a few seconds if the earth is about to open up, besides take the opportunity to plant a big wet goodbye kiss on my own ass?

    I admit that I've been fortifying myself with spirits in order to work up the courage to go out into the cold to walk the dog, so maybe I'm missing something.

    • Well, some people are only a few seconds from a stairwell or could at least get under a sturdy desk.

    • Re:A few seconds? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Known Nutter ( 988758 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @10:44PM (#51498803)

      what the fuck am I gonna do with those "few seconds" warning

      We get this question quite a bit in the Bay Area. Here are the common responses:

      Public: Citizens, including schoolchildren, drop, cover, and hold on; turn off stoves, safely stop vehicles.

      Businesses: Personnel move to safe locations, automated systems ensure elevators doors open, production lines are shut down, sensitive equipment is placed in a safe mode.

      Medical services: Surgeons, dentists, and others stop delicate procedures.

      Emergency responders: Open firehouse doors, personnel prepare and prioritize response decisions.

      Power infrastructure: Protect power stations and grid facilities from strong shaking.

      For more: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/res... [usgs.gov]

    • If you are so scared about earth quakes, why are you not even knowing the basic measures you can take?

      http://www.shakeout.org/dropco... [shakeout.org]

      • If you are so scared about earth quakes, why are you not even knowing the basic measures you can take?

        I'm not afraid of earthquakes, because I don't frequent the hell-holes that have earthquakes.

    • by Alumoi ( 1321661 )

      Update your failbook page? Tweet you're about to die? Upload your last selfie?

  • by Archfeld ( 6757 )

    I'd like my smartphone shaken, not stirred :)

  • by oheso ( 898435 ) on Friday February 12, 2016 @09:23PM (#51498553)
    We get alerts on our cell phones with at most a couple of seconds' warning. In theory that gives you time to duck under a desk or into a doorway. In practice it's always been: Beep! What the fuck is that? Earthquake!
    • by khchung ( 462899 )

      In practice it's always been: Beep! What the fuck is that? Earthquake!

      Well, at least that would help you know right away it *is* an earthquake, and not your building collapsing or you got dizzy, and allows you to react correctly.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        In practice it's always been: Beep! What the fuck is that? Earthquake!

        Well, at least that would help you know right away it *is* an earthquake, and not your building collapsing or you got dizzy, and allows you to react correctly.

        Or Godzilla.

    • Actually either the App had its unique sound or if it was SMS based you would assign a unique ring tone to the sending number.

  • by Quinn_Inuit ( 760445 ) <Quinn_Inuit@nOspaM.yahoo.com> on Friday February 12, 2016 @09:27PM (#51498581)

    My wife was at the conference where this was unveiled and she came home excited about it. When we went to install it on our phones, though, we discovered it requested a surprising array of permissions that you wouldn't think it would need, like information about your contacts list. I think I'll hold off till they scale that back to something more reasonable.

    • If you have a rooted Android phone you can use Xposed Framework to get AppOps Xposed, which brings back the AppOps feature that lets you control atomic permissions on Android. Then you can deny all the privacy-stealing permissions for an app and still use it.

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