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Want those precious few seconds of early warning before the full force of an earthquake hits? Your phone can help.

Google spoke about how their ‘Android Earthquake Alerts System’ helps in the time of a natural diasaster, on the first day of the Regional Conference of the World Meteorological Organisation’s Regional Association II (RAII) Asia, being held in Abu Dhabi from today, March 13 until March 16.

Earthquakes happen daily around the world, with hundreds of millions of people living in earthquake-prone regions. The US National Earthquake Information Centre says there are about 55 earthquakes a day around the world — that's 20,000 a year.

An early warning can help people prepare for the tremors, but the public infrastructure to detect and alert everyone for an earthquake is costly to build and deploy. Google saw an opportunity to use Android to provide people with timely earthquake information when they use Google Search.

Android Earthquake Alerts System is a free service that detects earthquakes around the world and can alert Android users before tremors start.

“Android [smart]phones have inbuilt accelerometers,” Abhishek Modi, APAC (Asia-Pacific) Partnerships Lead at Google explained, while speaking at the four-day conference.

These “… tiny accelerometers can sense vibrations and speed, signals that indicate an earthquake might be happening. If the phone detects something that it thinks may be an earthquake, it sends a signal to the Google earthquake detection server, along with a coarse location of where the shaking occurred,” explains Google’s ‘crisis response’ section online. “The server then combines information from many phones to figure out if an earthquake is happening. This approach uses the 2+billion Android phones in use around the world as mini-seismometres to create the world’s largest earthquake detection network; the phones detect the vibration and speed of shaking of an earthquake, and alert Android users in affected areas accordingly.”

The intensity and area of impact are displayed on Google Search. Simply search for ‘Earthquake near me’ – if you’ve felt shaking – to get additional information about any seismic activity near you.

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Alerting users during an earthquake

Google early warning system
This alert is designed to give you a heads-up for light shaking and provide more information when you tap on the notification.

Android has two types of notifications designed to alert users about an earthquake. Both alert types are only sent for earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or greater. “This is to avoid over-alerting in cases of non-impactful earthquakes,” Modi added.

Be Aware Alert: This alert is designed to give you a heads-up for light shaking and provide more information when you tap on the notification. It is only sent to users who will experience MMI (Modified Mercalli intensity scale, a seismic intensity scale) 3 and 4 shaking during an earthquake of magnitude 4.5 or greater. The alerts in this situation respect the volume, Do Not Disturb, and Notification settings on your device.

Google early warning system
This alert is designed to get your attention before you experience moderate to heavy shaking so that you can take action to protect yourself.

Take Action Alert: This alert is designed to get your attention before you experience moderate to heavy shaking so that you can take action to protect yourself. Only sent to users who will experience MMI 5+ shaking during an earthquake of magnitude 4.5 or greater. It will break through Do Not Disturb settings, turn on your screen and play a loud sound.

Earthquake Safety Information

Tapping on either of the alerts will present Earthquake safety information, which consists of simple steps that you can take to keep yourself safer after an earthquake, Modi explained.

It also provides a detailed map of an early estimate of the earthquake's location and magnitude.

How do I turn on the earthquake alert system on my Android phone?
• Go into your phone's ‘settings’ app.
• Click on ‘Location’. Then go to ‘Location Services’. Tap on it.
• Then click on Earthquake Alerts – turn it on.

Google Search

When a natural disaster strikes in any part of the world, one of the first things people tend to do is head to Google Search, to find out what happened. Billions of queries are made.

“What happened, how are they [people in the affected areas] impacted, who should they call and contact, and how can they help are generally the queries made. We have responded to these queries for over a decade now,” said Modi.

The information Google provides is divided into three types of results – solutions during the ‘pre-crisis’ period, solutions during the crisis, and solutions in the ‘post-crisis’ period, explained Modi.

Partnering with Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and other organisations that specialise in satellite imagery, Google uses multiple data sets to make predictions before a disaster strikes as well as through the disaster period.

“We leverage global data that we have such as satellite imagery, access to foreign data sets… and we can bring global learnings into the local context of the country to build solutions around it,” said Modi.

These learnings are used to provide information such as Google Alerts during a disaster.

For instance, Google’s ‘Flood Forecasting’ feature predicts how much flooding a particular region is likely to have. “We take data such as snowfall and precipitation to judge how much water levels will rise,” Modi explained. They have a platform called 'FloodHub' that shows the area and time where floods could occur, in order to inform people in advance.

Wildfire alerts

Modi said that heatwaves is a topic people are searching a lot, too, owing to the current rise in temperatures across the globe. And rising temperatures means wildfires in certain parts of the world.

“Alerts regarding wildfires are also shown to Google users. The Wildfire Boundary Detection feature is used to display the area which is impacted by the fire on Google Maps, for instance,” he said

The type of alert that Google issues depends on whether or not a natural disaster will cause significant risk to your life.

Increase in natural disasters across Asia

In the same session, Victoria Alexeeva, a senior official at the World Meteorological organisation, explained that the occurrence of weather, water, and climate extremes has been rising at a fast pace in the last decade.

“The impacts of weather climate and water-related hazards continue to adversely affect health as well as social and economic development. As a result of natural disasters, over one-third of all economical losses occurred in Asia,” said Alexeeva.

Luckily, the number of deaths has been decreasing, she added.

Early Warning Systems (EWS) deliver multiple socio-economic benefits, the official explained during a video call.

“It will help in ending poverty, minimise human loss, achieving food security, ensuring healthy lives, addressing gender equality, ensuring clean water and sanitation, promoting decent work and economic growth, making cities safe and resilient, and combating climate change and its impacts,” she added.

Emphasising the need for more research and development in early warning systems, she added that evidence demonstrates a strong economic case for EWSs – these systems provide more than a tenfold return on investment – the greatest of any adapt