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Harnessing laptop accelerometers, scientists devise earthquake warning system

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By harnessing the accelerometers found in laptops and phones, scientists say they can better predict the onset of an earthquake.

By harnessing the accelerometers found in laptops and phones, scientists say they can better predict the onset of an earthquake.

Seismologists at the University of California Riverside say that the answer to improving quake warning systems might be to simply crowdsource the task and employ the public.

Led by earth scientist Elizabeth Cochran, the team has developed software that can be installed on computers in K-12 classrooms and elsewhere. The software monitors the movement captured by the accelerometers inside the computer, relaying it through a central network back to scientists so that they can more quickly sense tremors.

Accelerometers are included in many of today's latest tech toys, from the iPhone to laptops to the controllers that come with the Nintendo Wii gaming console.

The research team, which includes scientists at Stanford University, have begun to build the system, which effectively enlists private computers in a seismic network.

The concept: it's far too costly to install seismometers on every building. Why not use the ones being carried around every day?

The researchers say the ad hoc seismic network could help them get much more detailed looks at how the ground moves during an earthquake.

In a Los Angeles Times report, Cochran says she got the idea from a computer program called Seismac, which allows people to get readings from a computer's accelerometer.

Inspired, Cochran and colleague Jesse Lawrence built a free program that would record movement and feed the data anonymously to a central database.

The theory: that network electronic signals travel faster than tremors.

The researchers are hoping people will volunteer their systems for a good cause. Since the program was first announced in 2008, more than 1,000 people have signed up to be amateur "Quake Catchers."

The hope: that emergency officials will have enough time to shut off gas and water lines and shut down public transportation lines in the event of an incoming quake.

"If every K-12 school in California had sensors running," Rothfuss said, "it seems to me we could have some sort of early-warning system."

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure