Preventing Earthquake Deaths With Smartphones

Crowdshake replaces expensive early warning systems with a network of phones. When one starts shaking, it can warn others nearby that it’s time to find shelter quickly.

Preventing Earthquake Deaths With Smartphones
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We’re all being tracked: If you carry a cell phone, the police can retrace your steps without so much as a subpoena. It’s a side-effect of mobile phones that had the New York Times suggesting we change the name from “cell phone” to “tracker.” But what happens when you upgrade tracking for the iPhone age?


After all, today’s smartphones don’t just track location; they track ambient light (to keep your screen readable), they track tilt and acceleration (to respond when you move the phone). The new Samsung S4 not only has a much-hyped ability to sense where your eyes are looking, it has sensors to measure temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.

In other words, today’s cell phone isn’t just a “tracker”–it’s basically a mobile weather station.

That wealth of data may not interest your local police department (yet), but it’s a boon for researchers. Take a look, for instance, at finalists of Vodafone’s Wireless Innovation Project.

There’s RetiCue, letting diabetics screen themselves; MoboSens, a mobile phone water quality sensor; and Crowdshake, an earthquake early warning system for developing countries.

Crowdshake is a project of the Community Seismic Network, who have been distributing stand-alone, wallet-sized seismometers to volunteers all around Pasadena, to get a fine-grained look at how earthquakes travel:

For the last three years, they’ve been using smartphones’ accelerometers and barometers to take that same approach to the Android app store.


“It obviously doesn’t do much for the person with the phone now shaking,” says Richard Guy, the research scientist who manages the project. “But for those who are 100 kilometers away, in principle that could be very handy.”

Since earthquakes travel at about 5 kilometers per second, an early warning could give someone 10 or 20 seconds to jump under a bed or out a window. And a phone-based system be a whole lot cheaper than the early warning system built by the global standard-bearer, Japan, which cost in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. “There are parts of the world where that’s not going to happen,” Guy says. “India? The answer is no.”

The focus on the developing world is driven by need, but there are also legal reasons why it can’t be implemented in the United States. The concern isn’t about any invasion of privacy, but lawsuits if the system put out a false positive or false negative.

“We’d be doing it here,” says Guy. “If it weren’t for the lawyers.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.