Google Rumbles With Quake Detector

Jon Markman

Google ((GOOGL) -Get Report) has a plan to use the sensors in Android phones for a worldwide earthquake detection network, and it’s legitimately the best smartphone news is in a long time.

The search giant announced Tuesday that product managers will work with the United States Geological Survey and the state of California to integrate smartphone data to study earthquakes.

In an era dumbed down by bogus privacy concerns, the news is welcomed.

A decade ago, the promise of smartphones, sensors and software sparked a maker boom. Developers began using the cameras, accelerometers and global positioning systems found on mobile devices to build applications that changed the way we work and live.

For example, Americans in 2010 snapped about 300 billion pictures. It seems like a lot, but in only a decade later we are taking 2.5 trillion snaps.

We don’t drive to Walmart ((WMT) -Get Report) and have them printed on Kodak ((KODK) -Get Report) paper. We store them digitally on Facebook ((FB) -Get Report) and Instagram where they can be shared instantly for free.

And Google Maps can now accurately track location, decipher local transit systems and even help users hail an Uber all over the world. The software is so smart that it can figure how long your morning commute is going to take by aggregating real-time location data from millions of Androids and iPhones. It means never getting lost or being late, regardless where you travel in the world.

These are big digital transformation stories that have been attacked by competitors and government leaders under the guise of lost privacy.

That’s why the Google earthquake detection system is so refreshing. Like Maps, the free-to-use system will aggregate data from millions of Android phones, then use machine learning to perfect algorithms that make sense of tiny movements detected by smartphone accelerometers.

It’s the kind of big, disruptive idea that has endeared smartphones to billions of customers.

Initially, the phones will rely on seismometer data supplied by ShakeAlert system, a network of infrastructure already deployed in California. However, the second and third stages of the project will use the algorithms to turn Android devices into a living network of mobile seismometers.

Google wants to replicate super expensive earthquake detection machines with software and a shared network of cheap smartphones sensors. Then it’s going to give away the information for free.

The first goal is to have a system that can process varying types of signals while not overwhelming cell tower infrastructure with millions of needless alerts.

Eventually, the service will roll out globally as an API, a bit of code that third-party developers can use it as a building block to bring detection to other networks.

For example, the Verge notes that a signal from a smartphone might cause network-connected elevators to automatically stop and open the doors at the next floor in the event the phone detects a strong enough seismic wave. Another signal might divert aircraft from the affected area, or slow trains.

There is still plenty of work to do. And Marc Stogaitis, principle Android software engineer, is careful to note that the data collected from Androids will be de-identified and users will have to opt in to participate in the project or to get the alerts.

These automatic privacy disclaimers are a prerequisite in this era.

Investors, however, should be excited for what it really means. Despite all of the mushy-mouth rhetoric about privacy, Google engineers are pushing ahead to make something really new, and potentially lifesaving. Their tool chest is software, sensors and the smartphones we all carry.

It’s the kind of innovation that has been fleeting the past few years. Thankfully, at least one big technology company is still willing to shake up the status quo.  

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