Will the use of smartphones one-day help save the lives of people in California? A warning was sent to hundreds of people living in the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday, October 25, at 11:42 a.m., only 42 seconds before the ground collapsed beneath their feet. It took exactly between 2 and 18 seconds, depending on how close they were to the epicenter of the earthquake which was located east of San José.
This earthquake, which was the strongest to hit the region since 2014, did not claim any lives or create any significant damage. However, she “tested” the alarm system that had been developed through a collaboration between the University of California at Berkeley and the tech giant Google two years prior.
The academic team led by Richard Allen and Qinkay Kong was already working toward achieving the Holy Grail in the field of earthquakes, which is the detection of precursor signals and the immediate conversion of those signals into an alert message. When asked about it two years ago, the first respondent indicated that the issue was that there was insufficient data. Those few seismographs out of the thousands that were set up in this area, which lives in constant fear of the Big One, were not able to be analyzed soon enough.
In order to detect motions and promptly transform them into notifications that are transmitted to phones via the My shake app, researchers came up with the notion of leveraging the accelerometers of cell phones (those that are connected but not moving). They explain that the basic hypothesis is that “the electrical signal travels faster than the seismic wave,” much in the same way that lightning moves more quickly than thunder. The pause during which one should take cover.
Since then, Google has directly included the technology into Android, which is the most widely used smartphone operating system in the world. This allows it to reach an even bigger audience and warn users even more quickly. Because of this, the company is able to notify even those individuals who have not requested anything.
The measurements from ShakeAlert, which is a system that is operated by the US Geological Survey and OES to evaluate the seismic activity and predict which areas could be affected, are the basis for the alerts that have been issued. When an earthquake of magnitude or more is predicted by the system’s algorithm, which is the point at which, according to Ferguson, earthquakes begin to become dangerous, the OES will send out the notifications, ideally giving people sufficient time to make preparations for the event.
According to statements made by Governor Gavin Newsom in a press release, “seconds can save lives when it comes to earthquakes.” Newsom revealed the state’s cooperation with Google to transmit its notifications directly to Android phones after announcing the construction of an earthquake early warning system in 2019. In 2019, the system is expected to go into operation.
The MyShake app has been downloaded by around a million people in the state, and the OES system only warns users who are in locations that might be affected by the current earthquake in the instance of Tuesday’s earthquake, which amounted to slightly under the user population. The app also provides feedback to the statewide monitoring system by informing when a phone feels the earthquake impact. This adds more data that can be used to further enhance its predictive algorithms, which in turn increases its capacity to warn Californians of an impending quake.