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Google wants to make Android phones act as earthquake detectors

Finally, a good use of technology.

android phone on table
Image: Unsplash

Over the weekend, the states around North Carolina and Virginia experienced two smaller earthquakes in the 5.0 magnitude range. For us in the area, this was pretty out of the ordinary, but it was definitely interesting timing, as now Google is looking at ways to make Android phones assist in detecting and warning people of earthquakes.

It’s a three-step process according to The Verge. The first step revolves around partnering with the United States Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services. In this step, they will be using data from expensive seismometers to alert users of earthquakes.

For the second step, Google wants to use the power of its search engine to help alert people of potential earthquakes. Basically, if you feel a shake, there’s a good chance you are going to Google to see if there has been any news on it. Google says this mass amount of data can be used to detect if a possible earthquake did occur. This step, at first, wouldn’t push notifications to phones, but will just give you localized search results and a prompt asking you if you felt an earthquake.

That said, once Google feels more confident with the data, it could start using this information to push out alerts to users.

Finally, the third step – and this is where it gets pretty cool – revolves around using the accelerometer located in many Android phones as a way to literally detect earthquakes. Typically, the accelerometer is used to detect things like screen rotation and apps that can trigger things by shaking the device.

Because there are so many Android phones out there, researchers would be able to see a huge net of information. That functionality would be able to trigger both P and S waves, which are associated with the initial wave from the epicenter and then the smaller, but often more damaging second wave. Google also notes that the data would be “coarse” data and not attached to an individual.

In this third step, Google will do what Google does best, take all that information, send it through algorithms, and use that data to determine the epicenter and strength of an earthquake. Marc Stogaitis, principle Android software engineer at Google, does note to The Verge that the system wouldn’t be perfect.

The biggest key thing is that the phones that are nearest to the earthquake can help users away from the earthquake know about it. One of the limitations of the system is that we can’t warn all users before an earthquake reaches them. The users closest to the epicenter of the earthquake just aren’t likely to get a warning in time because we’re not predicting earthquakes ahead of time.

This also means that there wouldn’t be human intervention in this because of the speed it would take to warn people of an earthquake. They aren’t predicting earthquakes, just hoping to alert people with a speed not previously available.

The Verge and Stogaitis also point out some of the long-term benefits of a system like this. If the system is refined, it could be used to automatically do things like turn off gas at businesses or stop elevators before the S wave hits, allowing people to get off elevators safely.

Overall, it seems like an amazing use of technology. We always talk about using technology for the good of the people, and this seems like the perfect example.

What do you think? Would you be ok with Google using information from your phone to help alert people of earthquakes? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Former KnowTechie editor.

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