Citizens around the world now have the opportunity to be part of one of the newest scientific developments in earthquake research using only their smart phones.
Since its launch in February last year, the University of California Berkeley's MyShake application has garnered close to 250,000 downloads. It has made great strides in collecting earthquake data from across the planet.
"It truly is global," Berkeley Seismological Laboratory Director Richard Allen said. "This is by far the largest, global seismic network there is."
The app harnesses accelerometers, or measurements of acceleration, of modern smart phones. Most mobile devices can provide a 95 percent rate of accuracy in detecting an earthquake over everyday movements in the device, Allen added.
"It's shockingly accurate," he said, citing that smart phones can record waveforms related to earthquakes of 2.5 magnitude, which would often go unnoticed by an individual.
The application, and its unique algorithm for monitoring a phone's accelerometer for seismic activity, was developed jointly between the university and the Deutsche Telekom Silicon Valley Innovation Center.
The long-term objective of the project is not only to gather seismic data for research, but also to provide better hazard warnings to the public, Allen said.
"This project has been an overwhelming success," he said.
Within 24 hours of its launch last year, the number of downloads neared 50,000. Since then, the application's use has expanded and notification systems were added for users in December.
Users can determine what kind of data notifications they want to receive based on location and by magnitude.
"Right now, about 10,000 phones contribute data to our archive each day," Allen said.
When an earthquake occurs, the users' phones send the information back to a central server for analysis. The use of smart phone seismometers has already proved useful to the researchers, who are just beginning to scratch the surface of the data they've collected.
Allen said there are typically 100 to 150 locations in static seismic networks they could have gotten data from in the past. However, with an expanding global network of portable seismometers, data can now be collected from more remote regions of the world.
For example, Allen said areas like Nepal do not offer a lot of data in terms of seismometers, but there are thousands of smart phone users in the region. The application could provide a better look at the physics and processes related to the region's quakes in the future.
"We're just getting a start at looking at the earthquake rupture process and trying to answer some of these fundamental questions," Allen said. "In terms of the application, we want to start providing people with an ever more rapid alert. The goal is to get faster and faster and provide people with [warning time]."
At the moment, the application sends out a notification to users only after an earthquake occurs. The goal for the future is for the detection system to send out a notification to people located away from the epicenter before they feel the shaking, he added.
"We are always looking to expand our user base," he said, adding that using the phones collectively, more data can be gathered to further the research initiative and lead to greater advancements in warning time.
The application can be downloaded by those using a smart phone, which runs an Android operating system. Allen said that development for an iPhone version is currently underway and should be available to users by the spring of 2017.