At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, held from February 22–25, German-based international operator Deutsche Telekom and the University of California, Berkeley, plan to present an early-warning earthquake protection system called MyShake. The jointly developed app leverages the built-in accelerometers in smartphones, taking advantage of their ability to sense motion. Data collected by many phones in a given area is aggregated and analyzed by cloud-based software, which determines, based on the GPS locations of the phones in question, whether enough seismic activity is taking place to indicate an earthquake. The partners claim that MyShake is sensitive enough to record earthquakes of at least magnitude 5—strong enough to do damage—within a radius of 10 kilometers. The MyShake app runs in the background on a smartphone, using very little power, so it can be monitoring earth movement day and night. The hope of DT and UC Berkeley is that eventually a worldwide network of smartphones running MyShake will be established.
We find this to be a very innovative idea and one that incarnates a quality unique to mobile communications technology—its ability to link people together in productive ways. MyShake can achieve real utility only if a critical mass of users has the app installed on their phones, because this kind of data sharing needs large-scale participation in order to bear fruit. However, unlike mobile advertising, which is also a form of data sharing (in which companies harvest information about consumption from huge numbers of consumers), this seismic initiative does not promise to generate revenue. It appears not to impose any great cost—or possibly any cost at all—on the mobile customers whose phones would run the app, but the mobile operators that would provide the service (assuming that DT were to sell or license it to other operators) would most likely not be able to monetize it to any significant extent. However, the idea of linking people all over the world to help protect each other against natural disaster is appealing enough that it could very well give operators a public image boost and shore up customer loyalty and goodwill.
In any case, we find the idea of leveraging a basic functionality of smartphones to do a new job and creating a network out of those phones in a non-invasive way to be very thought-provoking. It points to the fact that even as mobile services are taken for granted and sometimes even thought to have reach their maximum potential, innovative systems such as MyShake remind us that there is much untapped potential in these technologies, and that that potential can be directed toward human welfare in the largest sense.