Earthquakes are pretty rare here in Malaysia (the 2015 Sabah earthquake is the strongest to affect Malaysia since their 1976 earthquake). However, to help detect future earthquakes in other areas of the world, Google is creating the largest earthquake alert system—which is Android-powered.
“Earthquakes happen daily around the world, with hundreds of millions of people living in earthquake prone regions. An early warning can help people prepare for shaking, but the public infrastructure to detect and alert everyone about an earthquake is costly to build and deploy,” wrote Google in their blog.
How it works
Google will be rolling the system in several stages. The first stage—which is already happening—is partnering with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to send earthquake alerts, powered by ShakeAlert, directly to Android devices in California. The ShakeAlert system uses data generated by traditional seismometers.
For the later stages, Google’s plan will be powered instead by Android phones. All smartphones come with tiny accelerometers that can sense signals that indicate an earthquake might be happening. Android’s system will use the data from that sensor to see if the phone is shaking. But it’s only is on when an Android phone is plugged in and not in use, to preserve battery life.
Google will then show localised results in Google searches for earthquakes based on the data it’s detecting from Android phones. This is so that when you feel an earthquake, you can go to Google to see if it really is an earthquake you felt.
Once the system has confirmed of the earthquake, Google will begin actively sending out earthquake warnings to people who live in the areas where they don’t have seismometer-based warning systems. Google’s alerts will also include very basic safety recommendations.
Their intention is to have differing levels of alerts for different magnitude earthquakes. The goal is to convey information as quickly as possible in a short amount of time so that users can understand that they need to react very quickly to an earthquake without reading a huge wall of text.
Eventually, Google plans to create an API based on its earthquake detection system. It doesn’t plan on using this system on iPhones, but they said that Apple would be free to use it.
For now, Google will be rolling this system out via Google Mobile Services. This means that the system should work on most Android phones in California. Over the coming year, the earthquake alerts would coming to more states and countries—but it won’t be coming to China anytime soon, as Androids there do not use Google’s services. Huawei smartphones would be excluded as well since it runs on Huawei Mobile Services.