MyShake App Crowdsources Earthquake Detection Without Killing Your Battery

You can help researchers learn more about what happens before and after seismic activity, and all you have to do is set your smartphone or tablet on a flat surface.


We love the app’s premise: Set your phone down on a table, as you normally might, and it’ll just silently record what’s going on in your environment using your device’s built-in accelerometer. If something starts happening that’s a bit out of the ordinary—like, say, a miniature earthquake—your device will note the movement and forward the seismic activity along to a bunch of researchers.

While you’ll probably know real quick if an actual earthquake is happening, the app, MyShake, is designed to improve early warning systems for earthquakes by creating a giant, distributed network of sorts. The network would use the information relayed by a ton of devices—like, say, smartphones—to bolster the “handful” of actual early warning systems deployed worldwide.

“To harness the full potential of crowdsourcing, scientists must use sensors that are already being used by consumers, develop systems that can harness the data from these sensors with minimal impact to the owners, and provide the owners with real benefits to participating,” reads a paper, published to Science Advances, from the UC Berkeley researchers that developed the methodology (and worked with Deutsche Telekom to build the app)

“MyShake uses the accelerometers on common smartphones, which is freely available from the Google Play store for easy installation and automatic update, and uses minimal power, meaning phones only need to be recharged daily as commonly practiced, and participation leads to delivery of earthquake hazard information and could include the delivery of earthquake-shaking alerts.”

Unfortunately, your contributions to the distributed network won’t be very helpful if you’re the only one in a particular area running MyShake. Similarly, the app won’t give meaningful results if you’re carrying your smartphone around in your pocket or purse all day long. The smartphone has to be on a flat surface, as researchers spent lots of time calibrating the app to separate shaking that’s possibly the result of seismic activity from normal smartphone movement. The app also works best when around 300 devices in a 69-by-69 mile area are participating. So, if you’re living in an earthquake-prone area, it might be time to start convincing your friends to help out.

According to Popular Mechanics, around 60 percent or so of devices in a given area have to report seismic activity before a warning is triggered for other participating devices that might be in the same location as said earthquake. (Though this warning feature isn’t built into the app currently, the UC Berkeley researchers are looking to add it once the app itself gains more traction.)

Once you plug in your device, and assuming you’re connected to some Wi-Fi network, the app will upload a more complex data dump for analysis after any earthquake activity it detects. That includes anything the app recorded one minute prior or four minutes after the seismic activity. This should give researchers much more localized data than what today’s seismic activity stations can provide—even in 3D, if a number of people in a particular building are running the app simultaneously, for example.

“In the future, existing [earthquake early warning] systems that use traditional seismic and geodetic networks could benefit from MyShake just as MyShake could benefit from integration of data from traditional networks. As described above, observations from even one traditional seismic station could help reduce uncertainties in MyShake earthquake estimates. Likewise, a handful MyShake phone triggers could be used to confirm a preliminary earthquake detection from one or two traditional network station triggers; most traditional EEW systems require several stations to trigger before issuing an alert,” reads the paper.

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, MyShake could deliver alerts in regions that have little in the way of traditional seismic networks. This includes Haiti and Nepal that both had recent devastating earthquakes, and other high hazard regions such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.”