Cell phones can detect ground motion and warn others before strong shaking arrives.
Cell phones can detect ground motion and warn others before strong shaking arrives. Image credit: "Everyone Check Your Phones - NYC" by Jim Pennucci, used under CC BY.
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Crowdsourced Smartphone Data Could Give Advance Notice for People in Quake Zones

Smartphones and other personal electronic devices could, in regions where they are in widespread use, function as early warning systems for large earthquakes, according to newly reported research. This technology could serve regions of the world that cannot afford higher quality, but more expensive, conventional earthquake early warning systems, or could contribute to those systems.

The study, led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), found that the sensors in smartphones and similar devices could be used to build earthquake warning systems. Despite being less accurate than scientific-grade equipment, the GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers in a smartphone can detect the permanent ground movement (displacement) caused by fault motion in a large earthquake. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, was a participant in the study, published April 10 in the new journal Science Advances from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using crowdsourced observations from participating users' smartphones, scientists could detect and analyze earthquakes, and transmit customized earthquake warnings back to them and other users. "Crowdsourced alerting means that the community will benefit by data generated by the community," said Sarah Minson, USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study. Minson was a post-doctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena while working on this study.

Earthquake early warning systems detect the start of an earthquake and rapidly transmit warnings to people and automated systems before they experience shaking at their location. While much of the world's population is susceptible to damaging earthquakes, the systems are currently operating in only a few regions around the globe, including Japan and Mexico. "Most of the world does not receive earthquake warnings mainly due to the cost of building the necessary scientific monitoring networks," said USGS geophysicist and project lead Benjamin Brooks.

Researchers tested the feasibility of crowdsourced earthquake early warning systems with a simulation of a hypothetical magnitude 7 quake, and with real data from the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-oki, Japan, earthquake. The results show that crowdsourced warning systems could be achieved with only a tiny percentage of people in a given area contributing information from their smartphones. For example, if phones from fewer than 5,000 people in a large metropolitan area responded, the earthquake could be detected and analyzed fast enough to issue a warning to areas farther away before the onset of strong shaking. "The speed of an electronic warning travels faster than the earthquake shaking does," explained Craig Glennie, a report author and professor at the University of Houston in Texas.

The authors found that the sensors in smartphones and similar devices could be used to issue warnings for earthquakes of approximately magnitude 7 or larger, but not for smaller, yet potentially damaging earthquakes. Comprehensive EEW requires a dense network of scientific instruments. Scientific-grade EEW, such as the USGS's ShakeAlert system that is currently being implemented on the U.S. West Coast, will be able to help minimize the impact of earthquakes over a wide range of magnitudes. However, in many parts of the world where there are insufficient resources to build and maintain scientific networks, but consumer electronics are increasingly common, crowdsourced EEW has significant potential.

"The U.S. earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowdsourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don't have high-quality networks," said Douglas Given, USGS coordinator of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System. The U.S. Agency for International Development has already agreed to fund a pilot project, in collaboration with the Chilean Centro Sismologico Nacional, to test a pilot hybrid earthquake warning system using both stand-alone smartphone sensors and scientific-grade sensors along the Chilean coast.

"Crowdsourced data are less precise, but for larger earthquakes that cause large shifts in the ground surface, they contain enough information to detect that an earthquake has occurred, information necessary for early warning," said study co-author Susan Owen of JPL.

"The use of mobile phone fleets as a distributed sensor network -- and the statistical insight that many imprecise instruments can contribute to the creation of more precise measurements -- has broad applicability including great potential to benefit communities where there isn't an existing network of scientific instruments," said Bob Iannucci of Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus, Moffett Field, California.

"Thirty years ago, it took months to assemble a crude picture of the deformations from an earthquake. This new technology promises to provide a near-instantaneous picture with much greater resolution," said Thomas Heaton, a coauthor of the study and professor of engineering seismology at Caltech.

This research was a collaboration among scientists from the USGS, Caltech, the University of Houston, JPL and Carnegie Mellon University-Silicon Valley, and included support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information, visit:

http://www.usgs.gov


News Media Contact

Alan Buis
818-354-0474
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
alan.buis@jpl.nasa.gov

Leslie Gordon
650-329-4006
United States Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California
lgordon@usgs.gov

Deborah Williams-Hedges
626-395-3227
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California
debwms@caltech.edu

Jeannie Kever
713-743-0778
University of Houston, Texas
jekever@uh.edu

Donna Sturgess
412-551-7436
Carnegie Mellon University-Silicon Valley, Moffett Field, California
sturgessd@gmail.com

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