Google is creating an earthquake alarm system worldwide with Android. The first part of this system is coming out today. If you decide, the accelerometer on your Android phone will become a data point for an algorithm created to detect earthquakes. Eventually, that system will automatically send alerts to people who may be affected.
It is a feature made possible through Google’s strengths: the astonishing numbers of Android phones worldwide and the clever use of algorithms in big data. As with his collaboration with Apple on exposure tracking and other Android features like car crash detection and emergency services, this shows that there are untapped ways that smartphones can be used for something more important than doomscrolling .
Google is launching the system in small phases. First, Google is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services to send earthquake alert agencies to Android users in that state. These warnings are generated by the already existing ShakeAlert system, which uses data generated by traditional seismometers.
“It would be nice if they were just seismometer-based systems wherever earthquakes can be detected,” says Marc Stogaitis, Google’s leading Android software engineer. But, he continues, “it ‘s not really practical and it is unlikely to have global coverage because seismometers are extremely expensive. They need to be constantly maintained, you need a lot of them in an area to really have a system. good earthquake early warning. “
So the second and third phases of Google’s plan will be enabled instead by Android phones. The company is moving very carefully, though. In the second phase, Google will show localized results in Google searches for earthquakes based on data it is discovering from Android phones. The idea is that when you feel an earthquake, you will go to Google to see if this is what you felt or not.
Finally, once there is more confidence in the accuracy of the system, Google will start actively sending earthquake warnings to people living in areas where there are no seismometer-based warning systems.
Stogaitis says the information collected as part of this program is “identified” by users and that Google only needs “thick” location information for it to work. Both the earthquake alarms and the detection system are also opt. “What we really need for this are just these little mini seismometers that are out there,” says Stogaitis. “We do not need to know anything about the person who sends it because it does not matter.”
An Android phone can become a “mini seismometer” because it has an accelerator – the thing that detects whether you rotate it or not. The Android system uses data from that sensor to see if the phone is shaking. Lights up only when an Android phone is locked and not in use, to save battery life.
“We understood [Android phones are] sensitive enough to detect earthquake waves. As an earthquake wave passes, they are able to detect them and usually see the two main types of waves, the P wave and the S wave, “says Stogaitis.” Phonedo phone is able to detect that something like an earthquake is happening , but then you need a general telephone to know that an earthquake is surely happening. “
The P wave (primary wave) is the first and fastest wave sent from the epicenter of an earthquake. The S wave (secondary wave) is slower but can be much larger. Google’s system is able to detect both. “Often people will not even feel the P wave because it is simply smaller, while the S wave tends to cause a lot more damage,” says Stogaitis. “Wave P could be something that tells you to prepare for wave S.”
This data is processed in the classic Google mode: using algorithms in data collected from thousands of phones to determine if an earthquake is occurring. When traditional seismometers are expensive and accurate, Android phones are cheap and plentiful. Google can use Bayesian filters and other algorithms to convert those numbers into earthquake data that are accurate enough to send warning alarms.
Google says its system is capable of finding the epicenter and determining the strength of an earthquake. Although the basic physics of those waves means that there are limits to what is possible, he explains:
The main thing is that the phones that are closest to the earthquake can help users away from the earthquake to know about it. One of the limitations of the system is that we can not warn all users before an earthquake hits them. Users closest to the quake epicenter are simply unlikely to receive a timely warning because we are not anticipating premature earthquakes.
This speed also means that Google’s Android-based warning system will not have a man in the loop, as these warnings will go from “a few seconds” near the epicenter to 30 or 45 seconds on the outside.
“We have a lot of seismologists within the team who are literally simply embedded with us,” says Stogaitis. This includes Richard Allen, «who spent most of his career on early earthquake warning [systems] and who did a lot in designing the ShakeAlert system, and who is also a kind of building a telephone-based earthquake detection system in the past. “
Allen’s MyShake app is a previous example of a system like this – but the difference now is that Google can build that discovery directly on Android and can do it on a Google scale. (Unlike Google’s system, MyShake works on the iPhone.)
Google’s goal is to have different levels of alarm for different earthquakes. He has consulted with seismologists not only about the design of the basic system, but also about how alarms should be displayed. The goal is to “convey information as quickly as possible within a short time so that users understand that they need to react very quickly to an earthquake without reading a large wall of text,” says Stogaitis.
For a long time, Google hopes to create an API based on its earthquake detection system. He does not plan to use this system on the iPhone, but if the API comes out then Apple would be free to use it. However, it is more interesting other systems will benefit from an earthquake detection API.
For example, someone might build something that automatically stops an elevator on the next floor and opens the door so people can get out before the wave comes. And you can turn off the gas valves automatically, you can have something that stops medical procedures, or open the door of fire stations prematurely. This is a common problem in earthquakes where fires are very large and firefighters often cannot get out. So you can build something that does it. Planes can stop landing while they are doing so, interrupting their landing. Trains can slow down. There is a whole ecosystem that can be activated using this Android-based discovery and publishing it only to the server so that others can access it.
The stakes for such a system would be too high – and the responsibility for maintaining this system would be just as high. So the API is far away. Google’s plan is to minimize fake positions and tune the system now. Google also had to make extensive efforts to ensure that its notifications would not overwhelm mobile networks. Sending a ping to any Android phone right away has the ability to block those air waves.
Google will use this system through Google Mobile Services, so it will not require a full operating system update. This means both the detection system and the alarms should work on the vast majority of Android phones in use today. (It also means that these services will no longer come to China when soon, as Android phones in that country do not use Google services.)
Google started providing earthquake alarms in California immediately, using the existing seismometer network. Earthquake data will also start appearing in Google searches soon. As for the warnings and notifications based on the data collected by Android phones, you will need a little more time. Google says that if a region has an existing earthquake detection and warning system, its preference is to use it over the telephone-based system.
“Basically, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world living near earthquake fault zones,” says Stogaitis, “and this is something we think we can help.”