The biggest natural disaster threat to Californians comes from earthquakes, wild fires notwithstanding. One quake can take out more homes, businesses and infrastructure in a few seconds than all of this year’s fires combined. There’s no scientifically valid way of predicting earthquakes, so most people assume they strike without warning.
Not so. Earthquakes run for many seconds, even minutes. The first vibrations that ripple out are called P-waves, which seldom do damage but carry critical information about location and intensity several seconds ahead of the big shake. The U.S. Geological Survey and west coast research universities have a pilot program in place to monitor P-waves, and send out alerts. It’s in the early stages right now, and only a few agencies are connected. BART, for example, is using it to slow down trains before the main force of an earthquake hits.
The next step is to figure out how to push that information out to the public in time for it to be useful. The City of Los Angeles has a request for proposals out, looking for a developer who can develop a mobile app that’ll deliver meaningful and useful information to the public within ten seconds of the first alert from the USGS system. The first step will be to develop an app that can beta tested by city employees. It’s intended to be an open source project. The code has to be published on GitHub and published on an open source platform.
The technical work is the easy part. The harder question is, what will people do with the information? USGS says that “the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds”. If ten seconds or more are eaten up processing and delivering the alert, and a few more seconds are needed for people to pick up and read their phones, there’s not much time to react and take useful action. Solving that problem will be the truly difficult, and interesting, challenge.