Earthquake app could indicate vulnerable buildings

A smartphone app being developed by scientists in Scotland could allow people living in some of the world’s worst earthquake hotspots to know whether their homes are at risk of collapse.

The digital platform – being developed at the University of Edinburgh – would be able to capture data from seismic detectors and relay it directly to devices with precise GPS information about local risk.

An earthquake monitor in your smartphone

That information could then be used by occupants to address structural issues in their buildings, to make them more resistant to the kind of quakes that devastated parts of Italy last week.

The smartphone itself could even become an earthquake monitor because they contain the necessary measurement instruments such as gyroscopes and accelerometers, which are used by seismologists.

Still in development stage

Professor John McCloskey, a geophysicist at the university’s school of geosciences, said: “The thing to stress is that this is a very long-term project and the app has not yet been developed. We are very much at the development stage. But we have put together a really great team from geosciences and informatics, as well as education and social sciences backgrounds, who are working on the project.”

He added: “The ambition is to be able to monitor the way the ground shakes from small earthquakes to identify places at risk from bigger earthquakes; we have the possibility of developing a high res tomographic image of a location to test how the ground would shake.”

Risk factor of individual buildings

“We could then use that to determine which buildings are at risk and which are not. You can see from aftermath photos of an earthquake how some buildings are left standing whilst others collapse. Ultimately, we will be able to tell beforehand the risk factors of those individual buildings.”

Professor McCloskey said smartphones themselves could eventually become the localised detection devices, which would enable those who were willing to download the as yet untitled app to determine their personal risk levels, whether that be at a building or street level.The information could then be used to retrofit or reinforce buildings at a high risk of collapse.

“You could reconstruct a particular point in a particular house at a known location after replaying how that location behaves in a small earthquake; by knowing how waves will travel underground we can make estimates of the parameters and make a forecast of what the ground will do.”

Hurdles to overcome

If the smartphone does become the detection device, users would have to attach them to the wall of a building whilst charging it, as it otherwise would not work. The project would also rely on citizens who would volunteer to become part of it, by giving scientists access to their individual data.

“There are technical problems as well as engagement hurdles and social issues that we would need to get over,” adds Professor McCloskey.

High-risk areas

The software is being developed in partnership with the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre at the university and could be ready in three years’ time. If successful it could be made available to some of the places at greatest risk on earth, including cities such as Lima in Peru, Kathmandu in Nepal, Tehran in Iran, and Valparaiso in Chile.

“We can’t say for sure when earthquakes might occur but we do know where it will happen,” adds Professor McCloskey.

Scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the University of Edinburgh set off this week to the earthquake affected area of central Italy, which claimed 281 lives. They will deploy seismometers to help better understand the science of aftershocks and how scientists might better assist global emergency response.