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Alphabet’s Google’s Android phones on Tuesday in California started detecting earthquakes around the world to provide data that could eventually give billions of users a warning of a tremor nearby, with an alerting feature first rolling out.

Smartphones from around the world powered by Google’s Android operating software were allowed to be a part of a crowd-sourced network for detecting earthquakes.

Google’s program emerged from a week-long session 4-1/2 years ago to test whether the accelerometers in phones could detect car crashes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, said principal software engineer Marc Stogaitis. Smartphones are typically equipped with tiny accelerometers that sense movement and can catch shaking caused by earthquakes, according to Stogaitis.

Android phones that detect what might be earthquake activity can automatically send a signal to a data center, where computers quickly interpret motion and location data in aggregate to determine whether a quake is happening, according to Google.

Android phones will receive warnings triggered by a “Shake Alert” earthquake early-warning system implemented on the West Coast by the US Geological Survey and partners. Shake Alert uses signals from hundreds of seismometers across the state to trigger warning messages that “an earthquake has begun and shaking is imminent,” according to the system’s website.

Japan, Mexico, and California already use land-based sensors to generate warnings, aiming to cut injuries and property damage by giving people further away from the epicenter of an earthquake seconds to protect themselves before the shaking starts.

The system will not work in regions like China where Google’s Play Services software is blocked.

If Google’s approaches for detecting and alerting prove effective, warnings would reach more people, including for the first time Indonesia and other developing countries with few traditional sensors.


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