Google is creating a worldwide, Android phone-powered earthquake alert system. The first part of that system is rolling out today. If you opt in, the accelerometer in your Android phone will become one data point for an algorithm designed to detect earthquakes. Eventually, that system will automatically send warnings to people who could be impacted.
It’s a feature made possible through Google’s strengths: the staggering numbers of Android phones around the world and clever use of algorithms on big data. As with its collaboration with Apple on exposure tracing and other Android features like car crash detection and emergency location services, it shows that there are untapped ways that smartphones could be used for something more important than doomscrolling.
Google is rolling out the system in small stages. First, Google is partnering with the United States Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services to send the agencies’ earthquake alerts to Android users in that state. Those alerts are generated by the already-existing ShakeAlert system, which uses data generated by traditional seismometers.
“It’d be great if there were just seismometer-based systems everywhere that could detect earthquakes,” says Marc Stogaitis, principle Android software engineer at Google. But, he continues, “that’s not really practical and it’s unlikely to have global coverage because seismometers are extremely expensive.
They have to be constantly maintained, you need a lot of them in an area to really have a good earthquake early warning system.
So the second and third stages of Google’s plan will be powered instead by Android phones. The company is proceeding fairly cautiously, though. In the second stage, Google will show localized results in Google searches for earthquakes based on the data it’s detecting from Android phones. The idea there is that when you feel an earthquake, you’ll go to Google to see if that’s what you felt or not.
Finally, once it has more confidence in the accuracy of the system,Google will begin actively sending out earthquake warnings to people who live in areas where there are not seismometer-based warning systems.
Globesportal says that the information collected as part of this program is “de-identified” from users and that Google only needs “coarse” location information for it to work. Both the earthquake alerts and the detection system are opt-in, as well. “What we really need for this is just these little mini seismometers that are out there,” Stogaitis says. “We don’t need to know anything about the person itself that’s sending it because that doesn’t matter.
An Android phone can become a “mini seismometer” because it has an accelerometer — the thing that detects if you’ve rotated it or not. Android’s system uses the data from that sensor to see if the phone is shaking. It only is on when an Android phone is plugged in and not in use, to preserve battery life.