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Jan 13, 2017

Earthquake alerting app

Quake map courtesy of  GeoNet.co.nz
An idea came to me in bed this morning: smartphones have the capability to identify and measure phone movements in three dimensions, thanks to their built-in positional sensors. So, with the appropriate app, my smartphone sat on my bedside table ought to be able to recognise when it is being shaken about violently in the middle of the night, and alert me to an earthquake in progress.

I distinctly remember waking up a few minutes past midnight during the big Kaikoura earthquake last November, and being utterly befuddled about what was happening. I was still fast asleep when the inital jolt came, and it took me a little while to stir by which time we were into a period of gentler but strong rolling movements, enough to set the bedroom light swinging. I wasn't awake enough to react, as I should have done, doing the 'drop, cover, hold' thing. Instead, I just laid there in a bit of a daze, blinking up at the pendulous light and wondering what was going on.

If my phone had noticed the quake and started chanting "Drop!  Cover!  Hold" at me, maybe that would have had the right effect? Perhaps a message along the lines of "Head for the hills!" would be a worthwhile prompt for those in the tsunami zones? 

I wonder if anyone has already produced such an app. If not, I'd love to see someone take this idea forward, perhaps do some trials to clarify the specification and make it happen. Clearly, the app would need to be able to distinguish quakes from conventional phone use, perhaps using clues such as time of day, long periods of resting, no incoming call or alarm message, and maybe a "False alarm?" button on the screen.

Since it is just an alert, the conventional alert/alarm sounds could be used, or better still we could record our own messages, picking up on the cocktail party effect by having a significant other call our name at the start of the message. For bonus points, the 'head for the hills' thing could even tell me what way to go, using the phone's built-in GPS and mapping capabilities. [And, yes, this is scope creep in action!]

It occurs to me that if such an app were used widely across the country, that would effectively comprise a distributed network of semi-intelligent earthquake sensors, measuring the intensity of the shakes in real time.  It might prompt phone owners to submit subjective earthquake reports, supplementing the scientific sensors and existing web reporting system. [More creeping scope - I could go on ...].

The trouble is, I have no idea how to take this idea forward. I'm not even sure if it's novel or lame, perhaps blindingly obvious to anyone who makes the conceptual connection between smartphones and earthquakes. I'm neither a smartphone programmer nor seismologist, just someone with a brainwave that got me out of bed this morning. I don't know who might be both interested and capable of exploring and developing the idea, perhaps taking it further.

The main reason I'm blabbering on about it here is that I think it might be a patentable invention but I'm not looking to make any money out of this, and I'd much rather see it exploited for the public good than line some entrepreneur's pockets. This is a 'spoiler', deliberately disclosing the invention to prevent it being patented.