Google Taps Billions of Android Devices to Help Detect Earthquakes

Google Taps Billions of Android Devices to Help Detect Earthquakes

Google turning Android smartphones into earthquake detectors

Google studied historical accelerometer readings during earthquakes and found they could give some users up to a minute of notice.

In a natural disaster like an earthquake, even a few seconds’ heads ups could save lives. You could use that time to get you and your loved ones somewhere safe and prevent fatalities and injuries or any harm. Google is rolling out a feature on Tuesday (August 11) that not only gives you an early warning about potential earthquakes happening but also turns your phone into a mini seismometer and makes it part of a network of shockwave-detecting Android devices.

Japan, Mexico, and California already use land-based earthquake sensors to generate alerts or warnings, aiming to cut injuries, harm and property damage by giving people further away from the epicenter of earthquake seconds to protect themselves before the happening.

“The public infrastructure to detect and alert the public about an earthquake is costly to deploy,” Google’s principal software engineer of Android Marc Stogaitis said in a Google blog post on Tuesday (11th August 2020).

Google said it kick-started this effort by collaborating with the US Geological Survey and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on an earthquake alert system – powered by ShakeAlert and developed by the nation’s leading seismologists – for Android devices in California. The system uses signals from more than 700 seismometers installed all over the state by USGS, Cal OES, University of California Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology. 

But it can be costly or challenging to install such a network in other affected areas across the world, which is where the Android Earthquake detention System comes in. Users all over the world can opt into the program starting on Tuesday. “Your Android phone can be a mini seismometer, joining millions of other smartphones out there to form the world’s largest earthquake detection network,” said Marc Stogaitis.

Google will use your phone’s accelerometer to detect the movement. “They are even sensitive enough to detect the P-wave, which is the first wave that comes out of an earthquake and is typically much less damaging than the S-wave which comes afterward,” Google Explained. When your device senses something, it will send a message to Google’s earthquake detection server with some rough location information about where it happened. The server will then gather data from other android devices to corroborate and see if an earthquake is happening. UC Berkeley created an app in the year 2016 called MyShake that did something similar, and it appears Google has borrowed this idea, making it better integrated into the OS and more widespread.

The outcome of this work will for now be shown when you look for an “earthquake” or “earthquake near me” to show you if Android phones around you are reporting similar activity. Stogaitis added that the search results will also surface a few tips from “helpful, credible resources” on what to do after an earthquake. He also said the Android earthquake detector, which he described as a “crowdsourced approach,” was developed with seismology and disaster experts Dr. Richard Allen, Dr. Qingkai Kong, and Dr. Lucy Jones.

Alerts will trigger for earthquakes magnitude 4.5 or greater, and no need to download the application.

“We are on a path to delivering earthquake alerts and warnings wherever there are Android phones,” said Richard Allen, director of the University of California Berkeley’s seismological lab and visiting faculty at Google over the last year.

Google had more to share in the blog post. Along with updates to Android Auto and the smartphone OS, the company is also adding a language option to its Emergency Location Service feature. This allows you to share your phone’s language setting when you are dialing a local emergency phone number, which can enable a dispatcher to be better prepared with a translator ready, getting you to help faster. If you find yourself in an emergency in a foreign country and don’t speak the local language of that country, this could save some time in getting you the help you need.

Google’s principal software engineer of Android Marc Stogaitis also said that Google has not discussed its plans with Apple, whose competitor to Android comprises half the market in countries including the United States.