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Earthquake early-warning systems: how the Internet of Things can help save lives around the world

What is an earthquake early-warning system?

The aim of an earthquake early-warning (EEW) system is to provide alerts to people, devices and automated systems that shaking caused by an earthquake is about to occur, ideally with an indication of the expected shaking intensity and time of arrival.

Unlike earthquake prediction, which aims to specify details of an earthquake before it occurs, but is not considered possible, an EEW system uses a network of sensors to detect an earthquake once it has already begun and sends alerts to locations before the waves caused by the earthquake reach them.

A schematic diagram of a typical EEW system, with sensors deployed in seismically active zones and notifications sent to nearby regions

EEW systems can provide from a few seconds to a couple of minutes of advance warning, depending on the distance between where the earthquake is detected and where the alert is sent to. This helps to save lives by giving people time to seek cover and also enables automated systems to be triggered that reduce the risk of damage, such as turning off machinery and slowing down trains.

Some examples around the world

As discussed in our article The Earthquake Bell, the concept of such an EEW system was first proposed in 1868 for the San Francisco area by Dr JD Cooper, but it was not until 100 years later that they started to become a reality.

Following the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, an EEW system was developed for Mexico City that began issuing public alerts in 1993, making it the first EEW system in the world to do so. Since then it has been expanded to cover areas of central and southern Mexico.

Mexico’s EEW system was inspired by Japan, which has pioneered the development of EEW systems since the 1960s when its national rail company began developing an earthquake alarm as a way to reduce the risk of derailment during earthquakes. Despite this, Japan’s nationwide EEW system only began issuing public alerts in 2007. A notable success came on 11 March 2011 when the system successfully provided alerts for the magnitude 9 earthquake that struck off the coast of Tohoku.

Besides Japan, the only other country with a nationwide EEW system is Taiwan, which began issuing alerts to key agencies in 2014 and then to the general public in 2016.

An EEW system is currently being developed for the west coast of the USA, with the first alerts being available for the LA area since the start of 2019 by means of a smartphone app.

Lowering the cost with the Internet of Things

Despite the potential of EEW systems to save lives and reduce the damage caused by earthquakes, the majority of seismic regions in the world do not have one. With a price tag ranging from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, an EEW system like those described above is a luxury that many earthquake-prone countries cannot afford.

However, recent advances in Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud technology have opened up the possibility to develop lower-cost and rapidly-deployable alternatives that can significantly expand the reach of EEW systems around the world.

Our mission at Grillo is to turn this possibility into a reality. During the past two years, we have developed our own IoT- and cloud-based EEW systemsin Mexico and Chile that have been issuing alerts since March 2018. Our sensors, which are small in size and easy to install, are constantly sending unprocessed accelerometer data to the cloud, where detection algorithms check for earthquakes and send notifications via our smartphone app and Twitter.

A notification sent out by Grillo via Twitter for a magnitude 5.2 earthquake in Chile on 5 December 2018

The reduced cost of our sensors compared to traditional seismic sensors, their ease of deployment and our use of the cloud mean we are able to set up EEW systems in new regions quickly. Indeed, Grillo’s EEW system in Chile emitted its first alerts within weeks of its sensors arriving there.

Democratizing alerts with OpenEEW

Our experience so far has confirmed the potential of an IoT-based approach to EEW systems to bring life-saving alerts to new regions around the world. To expedite this process, Grillo will soon be launching OpenEEW, an initiative to share our data, sensor technology and detection algorithms.

The first step will be to open up our entire archive of unprocessed accelerometer data, including a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, enabling people to develop their own detection algorithms using cutting-edge machine learning models.

If you would like to learn more about OpenEEW and to get involved, please visit grillo.io/openeew.


The story behind Grillo, the first global earthquake resilience solution

Before 2010 I had never seen the destruction caused by an earthquake, let alone felt the ground shake. I was the first guest to return to the Montana Hotel (see picture above) in Port-au-Prince Haiti, where weeks before 90 people had died.

In the post-disaster chaos that always follows a natural disaster my job was to develop new housing projects for the Haitian government and the Clinton Foundation, which was hard to do in a country so damaged by poverty, corruption, and the earthquake. Coming from a stable and developed country it was difficult to stay focused when outside my hotel and offices were thousands of recently home-proud families adjusting to a new life inside emergency tents. After 3 years of living in Haiti, I married a Mexican journalist and moved to Mexico City. From one seismic country to another.

Mexican Earthquakes

The year that I settled in Mexico there were several magnitude 6 earthquakes and 2 magnitude 7s. Each of these would cause cracks in the walls of our apartment and break windows. Every Mexican in their mid-thirties or older has a vivid recollection of the 1985 earthquake where 10,000 people died due to building collapses, and with the arrival of our first baby I soon developed anxiety of this constant danger.

Around the time I arrived, I heard that the Mexican government had one of the few Earthquake Early-Warning systems (EEW) in the world, called SASMEX, but unfortunately the alert was only available to a few schools and government buildings. I worked with an engineer and developed a prototype alarm which allowed citizens to receive this alert in their homes.

Grillo Alarm Device, 2014

The device worked well, and continues to work well, which prompted me to create a social enterprise that would help promote it: Grillo. Grillo literally means cricket in Spanish, and helped describe some of the properties of the device; small, loud, and Mexican (grillo or chapulin, is a well-loved dish and also park in Mexico).

Mexico City has strong earthquakes approximately every 6 months, and many of our users were beginning to complain that our alarm would sound when there wasn’t shaking, or vice versa. Around this time we read a study from a university that demonstrated that only 1 in 4 alerts from SASMEX were accurate. We had to explain that we simply broadcast an existing signal and didn’t share responsibility for its accuracy.

Grillo’s Earthquake Early Warning

SASMEX was created in the 1990s and used very expensive sensor stations that limited its national coverage, as well as a long-wave radio alerts that can’t penetrate building walls. That’s when we began to think about creating our own seismic sensors and alarms.

Grillo was joined in 2015 by several world-class seismologists and we set about the problem of creating a modern EEW using new technologies to democratize earthquake resiliency in vulnerable communities. With funding from USAID, Grillo was able to develop its own seismic sensors, algorithms and alarm apps/devices. Our system is now less than 1% the cost of typical EEW, and takes months rather than decades to build.

We proved that our solution works very well in both Mexico and Chile, indeed this is now the first every international EEW system, and now want to democratize access so that communities around the world (Nepal, Turkey, Indonesia, the Caribbean) can also benefit from similar deployments.

earthquake resilience grillo journey story andres meira quake port au prince haiti mexico seismology data science building monitoring systems openeew earthquake alert alarm seism mexico chile la condesa earthquake detection
Percent of fastest detection per earthquake (25 earthquakes, March 2018)

To achieve this, we are releasing all of our years of data, algorithms and sensor schematics with our initiative OpenEEW. Our hope is that developers, hackers and makers around the world will help deploy similar EEWs in their territories.

Buildings kill, not earthquakes

In September 2017, again I found myself surrounded by the devastation from an earthquake, but this time in Mexico City. It was lunch time and I was on my way to collect my children from school when the shaking began. It was more intense than any I had felt before. For days the power was out in our neighborhood, and we worried if our building had become damaged.

earthquake resilience grillo journey story andres meira quake port au prince haiti mexico seismology data science building monitoring systems openeew earthquake alert alarm seism mexico chile la condesa earthquake detection
Building Collapse, Condesa neighborhood, Mexico City 2017. AFP

Most businesses in Mexico City stopped operating but at Grillo we found a renewed purpose, to help improve resiliency in a very real way for all our friends, families and neighbors.

We have since developed a new use for our sensors which we call Grillo Pulse. We locate them in buildings and they constantly monitor structural movement, alerting people if their building has potentially become compromised and unsafe. We have been installing this in schools, offices and apartment buildings in Mexico.

I am fortunate to work with very talented people, with the potential to save many lives in seismically-vulnerable communities. If you want to learn more and participate please visit Grillo.


OpenEEW: how we plan to democratize earthquake early-warning systems across borders

Introducing OpenEEW

Earthquake early-warning (EEW) systems have huge potential to save livesaround the world, but there are relatively few in existence, in large part due to their high cost.

As I discussed in Earthquake early-warning systems: how the Internet of Things can help save lives around the world, we at Grillo believe that an IoT-based approach to EEW systems offers a low-cost and scalable alternative to traditional approaches that opens up the possibility of many more people around the world benefiting from life-saving alerts.

During the past two years, Grillo has developed its own IoT-based EEW systems in Mexico and Chile, which have been issuing alerts since March 2018 via Twitter and our smartphone app.

We are very proud of what we have achieved so far, but we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. In today’s world of IoT, cloud computing and machine learning, the development of EEW systems can benefit from the expertise of people from non-traditional backgrounds.

For this reason we have decided to launch OpenEEW, an initiative to share our data, sensor technology and detection algorithms. Not only will this enable others around the world to start building their own EEW systems based on our approach, it will also, we believe, lead to the creation of a global community collaborating to develop ever-better EEW systems, always with the end goal of providing life-saving alerts and increasing resilience against earthquakes.

The roadmap

OpenEEW will launch on 11 April with the release of our entire archive of unprocessed accelerometer data, including several large-magnitude earthquakes, as an AWS Public Dataset. All subsequently-produced accelerometer data from our seismic networks will be published on an ongoing basis with a small delay of a few minutes.

Anyone can straightforwardly download and analyze our accelerometer data

This valuable data, constantly being updated, will offer people from a variety of backgrounds the opportunity to develop machine learning algorithms, not only for the detection of earthquakes but also for their characterization, predicting how an earthquake will be felt in other locations, a key element of EEW systems.

In the next few months we will start releasing our hardware designs and detection algorithms, so that others can build their own sensors and analyze the data they produce in real time.

Getting involved

The success of OpenEEW depends on its community, so we want as many people as possible to get involved. Whether you’re a scientist, a developer, a maker or anyone else with an interest in earthquakes and saving lives, we want to hear from you.

To know more about OpenEEW and how you can get involved, please visit OpenEEW.

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