Google is turning Android phones into a global earthquake alert system

Google has introduced its new Android Earthquake Alerts System, a crowdsourced method that uses smartphones to detect earthquakes before they happen. The new feature builds upon the earthquake alerts Android users in California receive, alerting them to a budding earthquake based on data from seismometers installed throughout the quake-prone state. Google is starting with detection and will move on to alerts.

If you're an Android user who lives in California, you may already be familiar with the mobile OS's earthquake alerts, which are delivered in collaboration with the state governor's Office of Emergency Services and the USGS. Those alerts are powered by ShakeAlert and aim to help residents take cover before the shaking hits, reducing odds of injury.

Google has detailed a different system this time around, one that aims to bring similar alerts to Android users located in other states and, soon, other countries, as well. The Android Earthquake Alerts System essentially crowdsources existing Android smartphones and uses their sensors as mini seismometers, combining data from them with machine learning to determine whether an earthquake is about to happen in any given location.

Google points out that many places prone to earthquakes lack the kind of sophisticated sensor system installed in California — and, for many regions, such systems aren't feasible. This is why Google is leveraging existing smartphones to detect early warning signs of an earthquake. When the system thinks it has detected this, the information is sent back to Google and compared to other data from phones in the same region to determine whether a quake is, in fact, inbound.

Google is kicking off this new system by first focusing on Google Search, where it will provide earthquake event information for the user's region based on, in part, this Android data. Later on this year, though, Google plans to expand this to roll out earthquake alerts, as well, starting with California.