Android’s earthquake warning system failed in Turkey, according to the BBC

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Google’s earthquake warning system for Android is supposed to provide notices in time to reach safety, but that might not have happened following the quake in Turkey on February 6th. BBC investigators claim that none of the hundreds of people they talked to in three Turkish cities received an alert before the first tremor hit. Only a “limited number” got an alert for a second tremor, investigators say.

In a statement to Engadget, Google saysmillions” of people in Turkey received earthquake alerts, although the company hasn’t shared data indicating widespread notifications. Google did show the BBC a handful of social media posts from people who said they received a warning, but only one was for the first quake. Product lead Micah Berman tells the outlet he doesn’t have a “resounding answer” as to why social networks were quiet about alerts. A spokesperson tells Engadget the technology is “supplemental,” though, and not meant to replace conventional warning systems.

The Android Earthquake Alert System uses the accelerometer (that is, motion sensing) in phones to effectively crowdsource warnings. If many phones vibrate at the same time, Google can use the collective data to find the epicenter and magnitude of the quake, automatically sending a warning to people who are likely to feel the brunt of the shaking. While there’s no more than a minute’s notice, that can be enough time to find cover or evacuate. The technology can theoretically help people in areas where normal warnings are unavailable.

The concern is that the system might have failed during a strong (7.8-magnitude) earthquake. Even if it worked, it’s not clear how many people should and do receive warnings in cases like this, not to mention milder incidents. Without more data, it’s not certain that Android’s quake alerts will consistently reach enough people to have an impact.

Update 7/28 10:24AM ET: Google has issued a statement to Engadget with more details, including an emphasis that the alerts are supplemental. We’ve updated the story accordingly.

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise