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MyShake turns your smartphone into an earthquake detector and research tool

A new Android app called MyShake uses your smartphone’s accelerometers to detect earthquakes and collect helpful seismic data for researchers. Early results show that MyShake can help with the early detection of earthquakes magnitude 5 and higher within 6.2 miles.

MyShake, which comes from a group of seismologists and computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, is already available as a free Android app. When the app detects vibrations that are in line with those of an earthquake, it instantly sends that anonymous information to a central system where an algorithm confirms whether an actual earthquake is happening and estimates the location and magnitude in real time. “This information can then be used to issue an alert of forthcoming ground shaking,” according to the paper published by the researchers.

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“Our goal is 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,” according to the app’s website. MyShake also gives users information about recent earthquakes around the world, as well as significant historical earthquakes.

Those who are interested in downloading the app but are wary of the effect on battery life have little reason to fear. “The app runs ‘silently’ in the background on your phone using very little power – just like the step-tracking fitness apps,” according to MyShake’s website. One of the ways MyShake avoids sipping too aggressively on a battery is avoiding the use of a phone’s GPS. It uses a phone’s accelerometer instead and does so in a battery-friendly way, thanks to some help from Deutsche Telekom.

MyShake also uses a fine-tuned algorithm that can distinguish earthquake vibrations from other everyday vibrations, preventing a phone running the app from constantly sending a stream of data. One of the limitations, however, is that MyShake will only work when a phone is laid on a flat surface.

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When MyShake detects an earthquake, it first sends a packet of data (with time, location and estimated magnitude) to a central server. “Combined with other reports from phones nearby, the scientists have shown that they can automatically alert other phones within the earthquake’s impending path — all within less than a second — notifying people as to the magnitude of the quake and how many seconds they have until it hits,” according to Popular Mechanics.

After the alert and once the phone running MyShake is plugged in, the app will send a larger data file to the server containing a five-minute recording from the phone’s accelerometer.

The team behind the app says it hopes to have an iOS app in the future.

MyShake appears to be one of a few early manifestations of previous research showing how smartphones could be helpful for the early detection of earthquakes.