Network of Citizens’ Laptops Will Monitor Earthquakes

  by  |  November 12th, 2008  |  Published in All, Environment, Featured

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Scientists want you to help them catch earthquakes. Rather, they want your computer to do it. As you’ll see in this ScienCentral News video, scientists hope to use the down time on people’s computers to help get a better profile on earthquakes as they happen.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: Jesse Lawrence, Quake Catcher Network
Produced by Jack Penland — Edited by James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

The Quake Catcher Network

If your computer isn’t busy tonight, maybe it would like to help monitor for earthquakes. That’s the hope of Stanford’s Jesse Lawrence and University of California, Riverside’s Elizabeth Cochran. They developed a way to turn your computer into a seismometer that can report results to their Quake Catcher Network.

They started their network using laptop computers, taking advantage of motion sensors already in many newer laptops. “These sensors measure acceleration,” says Lawrence, adding that they are a safety mechanism. “When your laptop is dropped off of a table it will pull the head off the hard drive to stop it from getting damaged.”

Lawrence and Cochran just give that accelerometer a new job: monitoring for motion from an earthquake. Recently they’ve also found a way to include desktop computers by adding a sensor that plugs into the computer.

People who have an appropriately configured computer and want to join can download software provided by the researchers. Lawrence says users will have a screen-saver where they can see any recent motion.

They use the computer’s Internet address, or IP address to get the approximate location of a computer, but users can make the process more precise by pinpointing their location on an electronic map. If they take their laptop to many locations, they can enter up to five different locations.

Also on ScienCentral

Screensaver Lifesaver

Quake Predictor


Tsunami Sounds


Crowdsourcing Disaster Prediction

The network takes advantage of a distributed computing system that allows many networked computers to work on a problem together. The idea has been used for projects like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project or to virtually test potential cancer drugs.

Although the sensors are not as sensitive as traditional seismometers, Lawrence sees the network as a way to gather a more complete profile of an earthquake from where it begins to where it ends. He says, “To really see how a large earthquake works, we need lots of stations right next to the fault where we can record lots of data, to get the initiation as well as how it slides and terminates. If we don’t have many stations it’s actually much harder to image that rupturing process.”

By having a wide network of sensors that might have stations close to a quake’s epicenter, the researchers hope one day the system could help warn of an earthquake by giving people a few seconds warning to step away from a window or hide under a desk.

An immediate benefit of the Quake Catcher Network, says Lawrence, is as a, “public outreach project.” He says they’re interested in working with schools and other volunteers. He notes that astronomy has gained from the popularity of amateur astronomy and hopes that seismology might make similar gains.

Lawrence says they’re working with teachers and outreach coordinators to get classes wired into the network. He says, “When a student gets to play with an accelerometer … it’s a great learning tool.”

Another possible use of computer seismometers might be in developing countries where traditional seismic monitoring is too expensive for any widespread deployment.

Lawrence and Cochran presented their findings at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, San Francisco, 2007, and have an article in press at Seismological Research Letters. The project is funded by Stanford, UC Riverside, and the National Science Foundation.

Elsewhere on the Web:

Grid Republic
One-stop-shopping for tons of volunteer computing and grid computing
The Great Southern California ShakeOut

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  1. Doug Lytle says:

    November 12th, 2008 at 3:25 pm (#)

    Too bad they don't include a Linux client.

  2. Mediamama says:

    November 12th, 2008 at 8:19 pm (#)

    wondered what our gadgets do at night while we are sleeping. TIs the Nutcracker season so I was thinking not this.

  3. Mars says:

    November 14th, 2008 at 4:15 am (#)

    Thanks, keep up your great post !

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    November 15th, 2008 at 10:50 am (#)

    too bad they didnt tell the software that does it all….then we can be voulenteers too

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