Nepal's 2015 earthquakes claimed thousands of lives, in part due to the limited seismic monitoring systems in placeNabin K. Sapkota

The world is set to shake, with scientists predicting an upsurge in earthquake frequency in 2018. How to respond? The answer might be in your back pocket.

As the Earth’s rotation periodically slows and the length of day changes by only fractions of a second, seismicity is forecast to spike in 2018. It seems that traditional earthquake early warning system (EEW) technologies are going to play an even more pivotal role in mitigating disasters throughout the course of the year. But such monitoring techniques and warning systems could be revolutionised by the new scientific VIPs – the public – the invaluable ally in disaster mitigation programmes. This could represent a re-scaling of the scientific discipline, making the public active agents in the future of science itself.

“But what are we to do?” There’s no need to whip out the white coats and safety goggles. Your contribution to science may be as simple as downloading the new app, MyShake, which turns your smartphone into an earthquake monitoring system.

MyShake was officially launched in February 2016 as a prototype earthquake early warning system for the U.S. West Coast, available for download on all Android devices. How does it work? MyShake exploits the built-in accelerometers on smartphones, detecting seismicity using a complex classifier-algorithm which filters out the vibrations associated with everyday movements. A centralised processing centre then amalgamates information from multiple smartphones and pinpoints the earthquake’s epicentre and magnitude. Using this app, earthquakes as small as 2.5 on the Richter scale have been recorded in California, a state notorious for its tremors given its (rather unfortunate) location right on the San Andreas Fault.

The MyShake dataset has multiple applications. For example, in Oklahoma, scientists are monitoring human-induced earthquakes caused by wastewater pumping and local oil and gas production. But arguably its greatest potential is to yet be harnessed, that is, to provide warnings of imminent earthquakes, saving lives not only in the United States, but across the world.

The vision is for the app is to issue alerts to smartphones, allowing people to ‘drop, take cover and hold on’, the mantra describing how best to respond when tremors begin. This advanced warning relies on the app’s capability to distinguish between primary and secondary wave forms that are released from the earthquake’s epicentre. The longitudinal primary waves are faster-moving, and therefore would reach devices before the more destructive secondary waves. An advanced notification could then warn the user of an imminent earthquake. As asserted by the MyShake developers, a few seconds’ warning is sufficient to take cover, and to shut down transport and utility systems that could cause injury and fatalities during an earthquake.

Using data provided by users, MyShake maps tremors and enables quick responses UC Berkeley/ MyShake

The scope of MyShake is enormous. We’re surrounded by smartphones these days – the planet is set to be populated with at least 6 billion of them by 2020. Even Nepal, ranked in the bottom third of countries according to Human Development Index, is home to an estimated 6 million smartphones. Yet the recent quakes in Nepal claimed thousands of lives, partly due to the limited seismic monitoring stations. It seems that the countries of the Western world will not be the only ones which could reap the benefits of MyShake mitigation.

UC Berkeley Scientists are not alone in promoting citizen-based science endeavours. For example, scientists have recognised Twitter as having a future in earthquake response and monitoring. This relies on the public to tweet within seconds of feeling a tremor, which is then fed into a tweet-frequency time series of tweets containing the word ‘earthquake’. This time series produces data that can be correlated with origin times of earthquake events. 75% of ‘Twitter earthquake detections’ occur within two minutes of the origin time, faster than the instrumental recording stations in some regions of the world.


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Don’t do social media? There are other ways to make a scientific contribution. The “Did You Feel It?” (DYFI) system operated by the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) encourages the public to record their experiences and observations of earthquakes using an online questionnaire, contributing to datasets from which high resolution seismic maps are produced. This project relies on the public, building a picture of the experiences and damages of earthquake events.

It seems that in the 21st century, the public are the new lab assistants. MyShake is still to reach its full potential as an early warning system, and it seems social media and online questionnaires are going to provide an expanding virtual space for scientists and the public to interact. The traditional laboratory has been rescaled and diversified. But not only does this represent the heightened role of citizen-science, but also the flourishing of science itself, extending to places never ventured – an experiment conducted right from the palm of your hand.