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Future Tech: 

Could smartphones warn of earthquakes?

Enough people recording data on smartphones could crowdsource early warnings against earthquakes.

Enough people recording data on smartphones could crowdsource early warnings against earthquakes.

We all agree that smartphones are pretty great. We love that we can relive our youth on classic PC games, or make the perfect cup of coffee. But with so many people now having a personal computer in their pocket, the possible boons for science are enormous. We’ve already covered 10 apps that make the world a better place, but analytical data from phone sensors could do a lot more than that without us even noticing.

Earthquake detection, for example. Earthquakes don’t strike every spot at exactly the same time, meaning that if emergency services could get early warning of one on the way, they’d be able to make vital last-second preparations. Benjamin Brooks of the US Geological Survey reckons that by harnessing the power of smartphones, we can combine geolocation with sudden moves to predict an Earthquake nearby. 5,000 people lurching at the same time would be enough to trigger warnings nearby.

“Imagine all of Portland was out at a cafe on a sunny day, and everyone’s smartphones were sitting on the table when one of these great earthquakes happened. The whole city would appear to move,” Brooks told New Scientist.

It wouldn’t give much warning – just five seconds in Brooks’ test simulations, modeling data from the Hayward fault and Japan’s 2011 quake – but five seconds can literally mean the difference between life and death. Five seconds is enough time to turn off gas pipelines automatically and warn residents to get to a safer place.

It’s a long way from being a standard phone feature. For the time being, Brooks and his team are putting 250 bespoke earthquake detection phones in boxes around Chile, where they’ll await the next quake.

Smartphones aren’t the only technology that can offer interesting analytics on human response to earthquakes. Last year, fitness tracking company Jawbone published a graph showing how many of their users woke up as a result of the South Napa earthquake in Northern California.

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