Earthquake Warnings by Phone

Earthquake Warnings by Phone

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My business has drivers that travel all over the Bay Area. Those who had the Android phone got advance warning about the recent earthquake last month. I have an Apple phone that is up to date but it didn’t get the warnings.  Fortunately we were all OK! But what’s the difference in earthquake warnings by phone? Chaz, Burlingame

Dear Chaz: The earthquake warning by phone is available to all smartphones but Apple users have to download and install an app called “My Shake.” The function is native, built-in to Android phones since their 5.0 operating system. That’s why Android users hear first! 

An earthquake warning by phone is not so new: The United States Geological Service (USGS) and its partners  have more than 700 seismometers distributed across California that detect and analyze ground motion. You can read about it here. One of their academic affiliates, UC Berkeley developed the “My Shake” app for Apple phones back nearly six years ago.  But it did not rank high in the app store until the recent San Jose area quake.  

Google has taken a more proactive approach to earthquake warnings by phone and does not depend on users to download the app.  A “My Shake”  capability is built into the operating system, so phones in California, Oregon, and Washington state receive notifications as seismometers process new data. 


Google is also exploring a less centralized method of earthquake detection,  one that is crowdsourced. The academic underpinnings (and credit for this week’s image) are discussed here. There are thousands of earthquakes everyday all around the world, and unlike California,  most locales do not have in-ground seismometers. So, the Google method is to deploy accelerometers on phones to “form the world’s largest earthquake detection network.” Should an accelerometer pick up a certain pattern and speed of motion- say up, down and sideways, it will send a signal to an earthquake detection server, along with a coarse GPS reading. If signals from individual phones are aggregated, it’s feasible to estimate the location and magnitude of a quake.   

All modern phones have built-in motion detection. I mentioned accelerometers in a recent Dear Smartphone column because Apple was touting how useful their new phone could be if you were involved in a remote vehicle accident. The accelerometer would detect the collision and automatically send for help. But here’s an “either- or”  to consider.  Are you more likely to be in a remote car accident in which there is no phone service or are you more likely to be driving in a vehicle where the pavement is undulating during a quake?  Hopefully in neither situation, but Google’s earthquake detection system is the likelier bet to reach millions.  

Earthquake Near Me:

By the way, crowdsourced earthquake detection does not end at advance notifications. You can use a Google Search (e.g. “earthquake near me”) to display a density map of other phones tapping in. It’s also useful to track the aftershocks, and, of course, for dispatching rescue services.  Fortunately in recent history out here that’s not been so necessary.

Both the MyShake app and the Android Alert systems indicate they can broadcast notifications through a loud sounding alarm or a voice alert on your phone. That’s a good idea, since, in the evening, it’s not healthy to sleep near your phone. In fact, you probably want to get an alarm clock and put the phone in a separate room to get a solid night’s rest. It’s a funny world where we keep our phones nearby for safety, but that safety comes at the cost of keeping us wired into a state of high anxiety and alert. Also note: earthquake notifications are more timely and reliable if the phone sends your location through GPS.  There will always be tradeoffs between privacy, battery life, and location services. 


Long before we had smartphones people believed that animals and invertebrates were good at sensing quakes.  They are, after all, closer to the ground. One of the most exalted forecasters is the lowly earthworm, as they are first to sense vibrations through the dirt. That has not gone unrecognized. The open source software that processes notifications for phone users is duly named “ Earthworm.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *