Your Android phone’s accelerometer could help predict earthquakes

The new project will create a worldwide detection and warning system.


Google is rolling out a global earthquake detection system using Android smartphone’s accelerometers. While seismometers would be preferred, this approach offers a more cost-effective way to identify earthquakes and warn people that one is on the way. Combining Android’s international scale and penchant for algorithmic data parsing, this system could provide many with precious seconds to prepare.

How will it work? — Google is partnering with the United States Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services to send alerts to the state’s Android users, based on the existing ShakeAlert system. The update will hit Google Mobile Services, so the majority of Android phones will be compatible. Android phones in China, however, are no longer tied to these services, thus removing a significant chunk of data.

Android users can opt-in to have their phones used as data points to determine whether an earthquake is occurring. The accelerometer feature can recognize both initial P waves and slightly slower but more powerful S waves, so it can warn people. The few to 45 seconds between the two (depending on someone’s proximity to the epicenter) can help people get to a safer position and eventually, help other systems prepare. It might not seem like much, but those moments can be the difference between getting off a train, delaying a plane landing, unlocking garage doors for firehouses, or simply getting away from a window.

Of course, opting in also leaves your location open to Google (a company that's variously shown itself to be over-reaching, vengeful, and petty) so it can pinpoint epicenters and send these warnings. In countries and regions where the placement and/or upkeep of traditional seismometers are too expensive, however, relinquishing some location privacy may feel worth it.

Ultimately, Google is not attempting to replace the existing systems, merely supplement them with more data. It would also provide a straighter line to alerting multitudes of people at once — which Google has already tested to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm cellular networks.