Using smartphones to detect earthquakes and coordinate people during catastrophes

Photo |  Fox News Insider

Since you’ve had a smartphone you’ve had a GPS device in your pocket, and with that there are a lot of things that can be done that before most people wouldn’t have imagined possible (especially with travel apps, and others that utilize your location). But there are even more possibilities: working in tandem with an accelerometer, your GPS turns your smartphone into a small sensor that can detect earthquakes in advance. Not when used alone, but when thousands of people use it at the same time.

We’ll explain: a study published in the magazine Science Advances details the experiment of a group of researchers in search of a low-cost solution for this problem.

The current alert systems (fundamental for responding to catastrophes) are based on seismographs, which are expensive to maintain. In countries without resources to maintain them — could smartphones be the answer? To understand how they would behave, the research team studied data that collected in 2011 by 462 GPS sensors located in the Tohoku region of Japan, where the earthquake was located that caused the Fukushima crisis.

As these sensors were even more sophisticated than those in mobile phones, the researchers eliminated data to give a result similar what would have been produced by 462 phones, and concluded that, even though the information was more difficult to read, it would still be possible to detect the tremor 77 seconds after its first movements. Later they estimated what would have happened if, instead of 462 phones, there were 4,700 (the case chosen for this simulation was similar to the earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1989) and concluded that the earthquake could have been detected just 5 seconds after the first tremor.

The GPS sensors in telephones don’t have the same quality of those of professional systems, but in the era of crowdsourcing, scientists are  realizing that with enough quantity, quality is less important. Their tests show that before becoming a reality, these smartphone sensors will  face some challenges, namely limited battery life, and getting enough  people to collaborate.

Crowdsourcing + GPS, a winning combination

earthquake apps

Photo | SGE 2.0

Even though the study is the first of its kind, it´s not the first time it has occurred to someone to combine the forces of sensors and phones and apply them to the detection and coordination of catastrophes.

In Spain we have two good examples. Launched in 2012, Alpify is an app that today is already connected with 112 emergency services throughout Spain and that in 2014 facilitated the rescue of more than 4500 people, according to data from the company: mountaineers in Gipuzkoa, and missing children in Bilbao. The service connects with the telephone number in order to locate the user if he or she is lost or in an emergency situation.. If the person using it has any problem, they only have to press the emergency button. Additionally, the app  monitors their route over the previous 24 hours, saving time in the search if someone gets lost.

Another good example, financed by crowdsourcing, is SGE 2.0, which emerged after the earthquake in Lorca in 2011. It is a complete, open-source tool that was launched after the disaster that ravaged the city in May of that year. People in the neighborhood were brought together to assist in the city’s reconstruction, but the organization was done with notepads and post-its. The promoters of the project (from the company made2dream) created a tool that allowed all of this information (much of it geographic, so the GPS in mobile phones was key) to be recorded in a database.

The GSMA itself is aware of the power of smartphones in these situations. That is why it has a disaster response program. On April 15 and 16, there was a study in Nepal that found “phones play a critical role before, during and after disasters: detecting them, facilitating access to emergency services and as an information tool.”