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New app enables smartphones to detect earthquakes

Scientists have developed a new app that can detect earthquakes through the use of a smartphone.

The free application, named MyShake, uses sensors in smartphones to detect movements caused by an earthquake.

"MyShake will run in the background of a personal phone and constantly monitor the acceleration of the phone," Qingkai Kong, a doctoral candidate from the University of California, Berkeley, said.

"If [the app] thinks some movement is due to earthquake, it will send a message to a server with the location/time of this trigger," he said.

A detection algorithm that runs on the server searches for clusters of triggers from multiple phones at both the same time and location.

If an earthquake is detected, the app will estimate the location, origin time and magnitude.

The current app stores information from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) about recent earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.5 and above, as well as significant earthquakes in the past, Kong said.

To determine whether the application would work as expected on the smartphone, the scientists used shake table tests.

"We did shake table tests, which uses a table to simulate earthquakes with the phones on top of it. Also, I converted the past earthquakes recorded from traditional seismic stations to phone quality-like data and tested the algorithm," Kong said.

The tests revealed that the average smartphone can detect earthquakes above magnitude-5.0 within 10 km.

"Some of the more recent phones start to see earthquake above magnitude-4.0 within 10 km," Kong said.

The idea to create the app came from previous works including the iShake project, a Berkeley project that used iPhones to detect earthquakes, the Quake Catcher Network, a Stanford project that used low-cost USB sensors to detect earthquakes and a Caltech project called the Community Seismic Network.

"We extended these previous projects to smartphones and designed tests to show that the sensors in the phone could record large earthquakes..." Kong said.

Currently, the scientists are focusing on collecting data to make improvements to the detection algorithm and improve the stability of the system.

In the future, the scientists hope to be able to provide earthquake early warnings to its users, Kong said.