Even a few seconds warning prior to a devastating earthquake could save thousands of lives. But Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) systems are too pricey for governments in some of the most earthquake prone regions – including Asia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Now a group of scientists think they may have found a solution: a crowd-sourced EEW network using consumers’ smartphones.

Writing in the April 10, 2015 issue of Science Advances, nine researchers – hailing from the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California; CalTech and JPL in Pasadena, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston, and Carnegie-Mellon – explain the rationale behind their research as well as its results.

First of all, the GPS on smartphones uses inexpensive versions of the sensors used in highly technical EEW. Secondly “the commercial push for ever-greater positioning performance would ensure that a crowdsourced EEW network would always incorporate the latest technology without need for large periodic capital outlays for equipment upgrades.”

The researchers experimented with a hypothetical California magnitude 7 earthquake plus data from the actual magnitude 9 quake off the cost of Japan in 2011 – the one that led to the tsunami and Fukushima disaster. Their goal was to see if an array of smartphones could collectively measure the displacement caused by the earth’s shaking moments prior to the quake erupting.

What they found was that with 500 cell phones in California, residents could gain a five-second advantage before the quake struck, allowing them to move to a less vulnerable position – which could make a significant difference.

For the Japanese quake, there was no value in an ‘early warning’ for people at the epicenter. But for people in Tokyo, a few seconds of warning could have helped reduce the damage. And people along the coast would have been several minutes – not seconds – of warning before the tsunami struck, allowing for some life-saving measures to be taken.

Though this research represents just the first step in the direction of crowdsourced EEW, the scientists – led by Sarah E. Minson of the U.S. Geological Survey – concluded that – “…by encouraging inclusion of consumer devices into EEW, the devices can be used not only to gather the observations used to issue warnings but also to deliver these warnings to the public. This will permit alerts to be customized according to a user’s location and should enhance system efficacy via a feedback process: The more that users engage with the system, the more effective it becomes at reducing the future impact from earthquakes and tsunamis.”