Smartphones Could Help Cities Create Real-Time Urban Seismic Networks

Accelerometers in smartphones could be key to detecting earthquakes and saving lives.

Now that more than U.S. residents have smartphones — and, by extension, accelerometers — in their pockets, governments are looking for ways to crowdsource important data. In Boston, for example, the Street Bump app collects GPS data to help the city locate potholes. It’s a great way for the city to save money while delivering better service to citizens. While Street Bump is proving to be a win-win for Boston and its citizens, a study suggests that accelerometers could be a key tool in saving lives during earthquakes.

Two seismologists at Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in Italy recently published research that suggests “[micro-electro-mechanical system] accelerometers can detect moderate to strong earthquakes (greater than magnitude 5) when located near the epicenter.” By crowdsourcing the data, cities could build massive urban seismic networks that could detect and warn people about earthquakes faster than ever before.

A press release issued by the Seismological Society of America explains in greater detail (PDF download):

A tiny chip used in smart phones to adjust the orientation of the screen could serve to create a real-time urban seismic network, easily increasing the amount of strong motion data collected during a large earthquake, according to a new study published by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA).

Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) accelerometers measure the rate of acceleration of ground motion and vibration of cars, buildings and installations. In the 1990s MEMS accelerometers revolutionized the automotive airbag industry and are found in many devices used daily, including smart phones, video games and laptops.

This isn’t the first study that examined the potential life-saving ability of smartphones. In a paper published by the University of California, Berkeley, seismologists found that “the sensors could tell the difference between different activities including walking and running, and an earthquake tremor.” By tying the collected data to existing emergency alert systems, cities that are prone to earthquakes could notify residents faster. As more data is collected, more accurate predictions could be made.

Antonino D'Alessandro, one of the seismologists who published the study, articulated the real value of this technology in a recent Wired UK article:

"The number of victims following a strong earthquake depends mainly on the intensity of shaking, and the speed of rescue operations," said D'Alessandro. "A real-time urban seismic network can drastically reduce casualties in urban areas immediately following a strong earthquake, by quickly distributing information about the distribution and intensity of ground shaking."

Would you download and use an app that collected data about earthquakes? Let us know in the Comments.

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Oct 08 2013