Use Your Smartphone’s Accelerometer to Collect Seismic Data

February 14, 2016 by Tim Youngblood

Smartphone accelerometers can do more than track how far you jog around your neighborhood, they can also be used to warn people of natural disasters!

The Seismology Laboratory at UC Berkeley developed an app that uses your phone as part of a vast network of seismic detectors.

Myshake, a new app developed by computer scientists and seismologists at UC Berkley, uses the accelerometer in your smartphone to detect earthquakes and collect seismic data for researchers. According to early test results, a magnitude 5 and higher earthquake could be detected within a 6.2-mile radius. Although seismic stations can detect vibrations more accurately, the concept behind the app is that smartphones around the world are more plentiful than these stations. Instead of using a few powerful seismic stations, Myshake will use thousands (maybe millions) of smartphones to cover more ground. By integrating the data collected by smartphones into IoT, scientists will be able to see a more encompassing vision of the Earth's seismic activity than ever before. On the group's website, the team states that the goal behind this app is simple: to build a worldwide seismic network and “use the data to reduce the effects of earthquakes on us as individuals, and our society as a whole.” The app runs in the background on your phone, using little power, much like step-tracking fitness apps.

Dr. Richard Allen gives some detail about how the app works 


Anonymous information is instantly collected and sent to a central system from the app when it detects vibrations. An algorithm then confirms if an earthquake is actually taking place, estimating the magnitude and the location of the epicenter in real time. This algorithm is so finely tuned that it can distinguish the difference between everyday vibrations from human activity and the vibrations of an earthquake. The data is only sent to the central system if it determines that an earthquake is taking place. This aids in lowering the amount of power the app uses. Power usage is also lowered by using the phone's accelerometer instead of it's GPS.

According to the researchers who developed the app, this data is useful because it can be used to issue warnings to others of “forthcoming ground shaking.” Although MyShake currently can only be used to collect data, the team that developed it plans to expand it to give users information about earthquakes currently happening. The expanded app will provide warning within seconds, as well as recent earthquakes around the world and data on significant earthquakes throughout history. The apps' one downfall is that it will only work when a phone is laid on a flat surface, but that will still allow for several hours of data collection while people sleep or charge their phones. Another downfall might be that MyShake doesn't have an app out for iOS yet, but if you've ever developed an app, you'll know that getting an Apple Developer ID can take months to get, so hang in there iPhone users!


A bunch of phones charging on a table becomes a small research center


Myshake may prove to be a great tool, but it's not the first app designed for timely warning of natural disasters. Disaster Alert, Developed by the PDC (Pacific Disaster Center), is another free app that allows you to quickly view hazards from around the world, such as floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, storms, marine and even man-made disasters, or to locate hazards in a specific area. The global day/night indicator can help users understanding conditions on the ground when a disaster happens and updates every 30 minutes. There are several more features that you can read about on the PDCs website. Disaster Alert has been around for longer than MyShake, so their app is out on iOS. This app is great for distributing information, but could benefit from the data collected by apps like MyShake. Since both MyShake and Disaster Alert are run by non-profit entities, a team up in the future isn't so farfetched.  

There are several seismograph programs out on app stores already. In fact, there are hundreds of neat apps that use a smartphone's sensors to detect everything from light and sound to metal and radiation! Unfortunately, these amazing sensor-based apps only show data for your current location. What sets MyShake apart is that it will be the first to collect this data and send it to a central location for research. The current seismograph apps will help determine how powerful a nearby earthquake is, but offer little help in terms of early warnings. If MyShake is successful, other helpful sensor based apps may follow suit and turn smartphone users into an important part of a network of research nodes. In the future, smartphones and other devices integrated into IoT may become some of our most important research tools. Keep an eye out for MyShake in the news because it might just change the way researchers collect sensory data forever.