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Kind of like SETI@home, but for collecting data instead of processing it. From

Newer models of laptops manufactured by companies like Apple and Lenovo contain accelerometers — motion sensors meant to detect whether the computer has been dropped. If the computer falls, the hard drive will automatically switch off to protect the user’s data.

“As soon as I knew there were these low-cost sensors inside these accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes,” says geoscientist Elizabeth Cochran of the University of California, Riverside.

So a few years ago, Cochran got in touch with Jesse Lawrence, a colleague at Stanford. They whipped up a program called the Quake-Catcher Network. It’s a free download that runs silently in the background, collecting data from the computer’s accelerometer and waiting to detect an earthquake.

Laptop accelerometers aren’t as sensitive as professional-grade seismometers, so they can only pick up tremors of about magnitude 4.0 and above. But when a laptop does sense a tremor, it’ll ping the researchers’ server. “And when our server receives a bunch of those, we then say, ‘This is a likely earthquake,’ ” Lawrence says.

Folks who don’t have laptops with accelerometers and still want to participate can purchase a USB sensor for use at their desktop computers. A lot of these, reportedly, are being installed in public schools.

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

  • jason1729

    How is the accelerometer data useful when laptops move around, so you’ll have not correlation between the data points and where they points belong?

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    …that they keep track of reporting laptops IP addresses, which lets them locate them using a GeoIP database at least in terms of what city they’re in, which is good enough spatial resolution for earthquake monitoring. The software may also be able to report GPS coordinates if the laptop has the means to determine them.

  • jason1729

    Most decent sized cities/towns have labs that track this data (as can be seen in the media every time there’s an earthquake). And then it’s known exactly where in the town the monitoring instrument is (exact latitude and longitue).

    How is extra data “somewhere in the city” useful?

    • Sean Michael Ragan

      Recall that seismic waves propagate for thousands of miles, whereas even enormous cities rarely have a diameter of more than 50 miles. At that scale, “street level” information about which Starbucks is shaking the most is really not very useful.

      And while you are correct that in the US there are a relatively large number of seismographs, consider the following statistics I cobbled together from this list

      at the International Seismology Center:

      US – 5000 seismographs/ 3,000,000 square miles = 1 every 600 square miles

      Haiti – 5 seismographs / 11,000 square miles = 1 every 2200 square miles

      Mexico – 230 seismographs / 750,000 square miles = 1 every 3300 square miles

      China – 94 seismographs / 3,700,000 square miles = 1 every 40,000 square miles

      • jason1729

        I understand that, and the information gathered by this plan would be priceless, if you could plot a graph of intensity vs position accurately. But if you have 5,000 pieces of position data somewhere in a 100km radius, it’s useless.

        There’s all sorts of really cool algorithms in statistics they could use it interpolate the whole map with amazing accuracy given enough data points; they could even learn a lot about the structure of the planet, but it relies on accurate positional data.

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