Idaho isn’t known for having earthquakes, but every now and again, our ground shakes. Living in Seattle, I’ve experienced a few earthquakes, including the 6.8 magnitude 2001 Nisqually quake. They’re unnerving, and can cause significant damage to buildings. In coastal areas, the risk of tsunamis adds to the danger.

Now, your smart phone can be part of a world-wide earthquake detection system that helps seismic researchers. By downloading the free app MyShake (for Android phones currently, soon for iPhones), your smart phone will have the ability to recognize the shaking of an earthquake, distinguishing it from everyday movements, and you will become part of a large-scale Citizen Science Project created at UC Berkeley.

The app runs silently in the background of your phone, using very little power. When it recognizes the shaking of an earthquake, it automatically sends information to a back-end server at Berkeley, confirming the location and magnitude of the quake. The app also provides information about recent earthquakes around the world.

Even though there hasn’t been a major earthquake in the U.S. in awhile, there are fault lines everywhere and experts warn that more quakes are inevitable, even in regions that aren’t near major fault lines. While we can predict tornadoes and hurricanes, at present we’re only able to give about a minute’s warning of an earthquake using standard seismic detectors.

According to Professor Richard Allen, Director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, MyShake simply uses a smart phone’s accelerometer – that sensor that allows your phone’s screen to move from landscape to portrait view when you turn it – to record the quake’s shaking. The app’s algorithm can distinguish earthquake shaking from the random shaking of daily use 95% of the time.

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Training a smartphone in earthquake detection.

The creators asked students to try to fool the app while developing and testing it, so that the app can tell the difference between getting on a bus and an actual quake. When several phones in a location simultaneously detect shaking and send data to the laboratory’s server, it’s clear the shaking is from an earthquake.

So far, nearly a quarter million people worldwide have downloaded the app. On the west coast of the U.S., roughly 3000 phones are contributing data. Data collected helps improve the algorithm, while the ultimate goal of the program is to be able to issue earthquake warnings based on the shaking detected by smart phones.

Wherever you go – in Idaho, across the U.S. or around the world – as long as you’ve got your phone, you can contribute valuable data to the lab’s research. If you want to be part of this Citizen Science Project, visit http://seismo.berkeley.edu/myquake/ and download the app.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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