The ubiquity of smartphones has turned them into essential tools for emergency services. Google's Android, the world's most popular mobile operating system, is already being used to disseminate disaster alerts in Japan and by law enforcement to help locate 911 callers. Due to the critical nature of these features, they tend to be baked into the software to avoid the complexity of pushing people to additional apps.
Building on the safety mechanisms of its OS, Google introduced an Android Earthquake Alerts System last summer in partnership with the United States Geological Survey. Launched in California, the feature has since been rolled out to Oregon and is heading to Washington in May. But, it's also now taking its first steps outside of the US to Greece and New Zealand — two countries that are prone to earthquakes, but lack an early warning system.
On an individual level, Google's alert system essentially turns your phone into a mini seismometer. But, more broadly speaking, it can create a network of shockwave-detecting devices, using a crowdsourced approach to work out if an earthquake is happening, where it is and its magnitude.
The system works by sending seismic movement info (sensed by your phone's accelerometer) and rough location data to Google's earthquake detection servers. In New Zealand and Greece, this information will be used to send early warning alerts to Android users. In addition, Google can also display this info in search results for “earthquake” or “earthquake near me.”