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Android's earthquake alerts may have failed in Turkey (Update: Google responds)

Update: A Google spokesperson has reached out with a statement.
By
July 28, 2023
Google IO 2022 earthquake detection
Google
TL;DR
  • The Android earthquake detection system reportedly failed during a Turkish quake in February.
  • The BBC claims that no one received an alert before the first tremor.
  • Google insists that the system worked during the quake, though.
  • A Google spokesperson has now provided a statement.

Update, July 28, 2023 (2:07 PM ET): A Google spokesperson has provided a statement to Android Authority.

We’re tremendously saddened by the loss of life as a result of the recent tragic earthquakes in Turkey. The Android Earthquake Alerts System is a first-of-its-kind, supplemental service that uses phones to quickly estimate earthquake shaking and provide early warnings. It is not designed to replace any official or other public warning systems.
Our system detected both major earthquakes and many aftershocks in Turkey. During a devastating earthquake event, numerous factors can affect whether users receive, notice, or act on a supplemental alert – including the specific characteristics of the earthquake and the availability of internet connectivity. Users may also not see or pay attention to an alert in the middle of the night or while prioritizing personal and family safety during significant natural disasters.
We continue to learn from detections globally and our team is committed to improving the Android Earthquake Alerts System by continuing to invest in technology advancements and engaging with academic and natural disaster experts to help users stay safe.

When Google was first confronted with the news that its earthquake detection system appeared to have failed, Google product lead Micah Berman claimed that the system had worked. However, the BBC reported that the residents it talked to insisted that they didn’t receive an alert.


Original, July 28, 2023 (2:49 AM ET): Google launched an earthquake detection system for Android phones back in 2020, giving people a few seconds’ notice before an earthquake strikes. Now, it sounds like this system may have failed during a quake in Turkey earlier this year.

Almost 60,000 people died after an early morning earthquake in Turkey back in February. But the BBC reports that the Android earthquake detection system failed to notify many residents before the first tremor. 

The Android earthquake detection system uses accelerometer data from loads of smartphones to detect shaking, being able to accurately detect the epicenter of a quake. The system then sends a warning to users, potentially giving them between one and 60 seconds to take precautions.

No alerts for the first tremor at all?

The outlet visited three affected cities and spoke to “hundreds” of people, and it asserted that it didn’t find anyone who received a warning before the first quake. It did, however, find that “a small number” of users got a notification for the second tremor, which struck at lunchtime.

Google product lead Micah Berman insisted that the earthquake detection system had worked, but the BBC claimed it didn’t receive any evidence of this. 

Have you received a quake alert on Android before?

236 votes

Berman suggested the possibility that the alert “quietly happened in the background, while users were really paying attention to lots of other things.” But residents who spoke to the BBC insisted that this didn’t happen and they simply didn’t receive an alert.

Google reportedly supplied the outlet with a PDF list containing 13 social media posts mentioning a warning about the quake. Only one of the post authors mentioned a warning for the first tremor. The author clarified that they believed they had received an alert but couldn’t be sure. Google also cited user surveys showing that the system worked, but it refused to share details with the BBC.

The Google representative later sent a statement to the outlet after the interview:

During a devastating earthquake event, numerous factors can affect whether users receive, notice, or act on a supplemental alert — including the specific characteristics of the earthquake and the availability of internet connectivity.

Either way, we hope Google takes measures to improve the reliability of its earthquake detection system on Android if it indeed suffered from major issues in Turkey. It’s one thing to miss a WhatsApp notification, but another matter entirely to miss a potentially life-saving alert. If it’s any consolation for Google, the feature worked as planned during a quake in San Jose, California last year, beating iPhones to the punch.

We’ve nevertheless contacted Google to confirm whether or not the system worked in Turkey, and will update the article if the company gets back to us.