These researchers want to turn phones into earthquake detectors

Russell Brandom in TheVerge: “Early warning on earthquakes can help save lives, but many countries can’t afford them. That’s why scientists are turning to another location sensor already widespread in many countries: the smartphone. A single smartphone makes for a crappy earthquake sensor — but get enough of them reporting, and it won’t matter.

A new study, published today in Science Advances, says that the right network of cell phones might be able to substitute for modern seismograph arrays, providing a crucial early warning in the event of a quake. The study looks at historical earthquake data and modern smartphone hardware (based on the Nexus 5) and comes away with a map of how a smartphone-based earthquake detector might work. As it turns out, a phone’s GPS is more powerful than you might think.

A modern phone has almost everything you could want in an earthquake sensor

Early warning systems are designed to pick up the first tremors of an earthquake, projecting where the incoming quake is centered and how strong it’s likely to be. When they work, the systems are able to give citizens and first responders crucial time to prepare for the quake. There are already seismograph-based systems in place in California, Mexico, and Japan, but poorer countries often don’t have the means to implement and maintain them. This new method wouldn’t be as good as most scientific earthquake sensors, but those can cost tens of thousands of dollars each, making a smartphone-based sensor a lot cheaper. For countries that can’t afford a seismograph-based system (which includes much of the Southern Hemisphere), it could make a crucial difference in catching quakes early.

A modern phone has almost everything you could want in an earthquake sensor: specifically, a GPS-powered location sensor, an accelerometer, and multiple data connections. There are also a lot of them, even in poor countries, so a distributed system could count on getting data points from multiple angles….(More)”