Skip to Content
Smart cities

Crowdsourced reports could save lives when the next earthquake hits

Combining app check-ins and tweets with traditional detection data could give rescue teams and residents a vital head start.
Ms. Tech; Photo: Pixabay

When it comes to earthquakes, every minute counts. Knowing that one has hit—and where—can make the difference between staying inside a building and getting crushed, and running out and staying alive. This kind of timely information can also be vital to first responders.

However, the speed of early warning systems varies from country to country. In Japan  and California, huge networks of sensors and seismic stations can alert citizens to an earthquake. But these networks are expensive to install and maintain. Earthquake-prone countries such as Mexico and Indonesia don’t have such an advanced or widespread system.

A cheap, effective way to help close this gap between countries might be to crowdsource earthquake reports and combine them with traditional detection data from seismic monitoring stations. The approach was described in a paper in Science Advances today.

The crowdsourced reports come from three sources: people submitting information using LastQuake, an app created by the Euro-Mediterranean Seismological Centre; tweets that refer to earthquake-related keywords; and the time and IP address data associated with visits to the EMSC website.

When this method was applied retrospectively to earthquakes that occurred in 2016 and 2017, the crowdsourced detections on their own were 85% accurate. Combining the technique with traditional seismic data raised accuracy to 97%. The crowdsourced system was faster, too. Around 50% of the earthquake locations were found in less than two minutes, a whole minute faster than with data provided only by a traditional seismic network.

When EMSC has identified a suspected earthquake, it sends out alerts via its LastQuake app asking users nearby for more information: images, videos, descriptions of the level of tremors, and so on. This can help assess the level of damage for early responders.

The inspiration for this latest approach was noticing that earthquakes brought huge surges of traffic to the EMSC website and the LastQuake app. During an earthquake in Bali, Indonesia, in August 2018, the team received 1,000 reports to the app in just a few minutes, according to Rémy Bossu, EMSC’s secretary general. The app tracks the users’ physical location (with their permission), while the team used IP address location as a proxy for earthquake locations with the site visits.

“It’s an effective and fairly clean signal. An earthquake happens at a fixed point in time, and then there’s a surge of people searching for information,” says Robert Steed, a scientific programmer at EMSC and coauthor of the study.

“People effectively are our real-time sensors,” Bossu adds.

Rather than replacing seismic data, this method of analysis can accelerate detection and improve confidence that a “felt” earthquake (one detectable to humans) has definitely occurred, the paper explains. This can help kick the local area’s response mechanisms into gear more quickly.

This is the first case of a citizen science project improving the performance of a seismic monitoring network, says Bossu.

“It’s a good example of how recent developments in technology and the masses of data that are now available online in almost real time are leading to better scientific results,” says John Douglas, a seismology expert at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, who wasn’t involved in the study.

This could reduce deaths by alerting the authorities much more quickly when a potentially damaging earthquake has occurred, helping them to ready teams for deployment in case of structural damage, Douglas adds.

The next step will be testing this new system during an actual earthquake. It’s still in prototype but will be ready to be evaluated starting this summer.

  • Correction: we amended the number of reports the LastQuake app received
  • <

Keep Reading

Most Popular

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

protein structures
protein structures

DeepMind says it will release the structure of every protein known to science

The company has already used its protein-folding AI, AlphaFold, to generate structures for the human proteome, as well as yeast, fruit flies, mice, and more.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.