• Debraj Roy

Can your smartphone predict earthquakes?

Some of the most valuable new research on earthquakes may be coming from - your smartphone and wearable activity tracker.

In Berkeley, near the epicenter, an android application detected a 4.4 magnitude earthquake and delivered a wake-up call to the users, according to Fitbit. As the quake jolted people out of their beds around the Bay Area last week, some of those folks had smartphones that were already at work sending data to scientists via the MyShake app developed at the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab.

Wake up call

Berkeley users, near the epicenter, got the biggest wake-up call, according to Fitbit.

The MyShake app is currently available only for Android phones. But potentially useful data is beginning to come in from other sources that weren't developed with earthquakes in mind.

Of Fitbits and Fitfulness

Developers of the Fitbit series of wearable activity trackers say that when the quake struck, they also got a burst of data. Since the devices also track sleep patterns, they inferred from that data that about 4-in-10 of their Bay Area users were awakened by the quake, which struck at 2:39 a.m. Thursday near the historic Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.

The company declined to say how many Bay Area users it has, but a Fitbit spokeswoman told KQED that the numbers are based on "a representative sample of tens of thousands of aggregated and anonymous Fitbit user data."

Analysts at the San Francisco-based company could virtually map the epicenter of the quake by looking at the proportion of Fitbit users awakened in various locations. As one would expect, Berkeley users had the biggest wake-up call, with the percentage of wakeful customers leaping from 8 percent to 52 percent as soon as the Hayward Fault started slipping. (The fact that even 8 percent were already awake might imply that Fitbit has a loyal following among insomniacs.) The farther from the epicenter, the fewer Fitbit users were jarred awake — just 18 percent in San Jose, for example. It’s still unclear what value this kind of data might have for seismic research.

Fitbit analysts also noted that even relatively benign earthquakes can be night-wreckers, as it took an hour for most awakened users to return to “normal sleep,” and 90 minutes before those rocked out of bed achieved the REM stage of sleep.

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