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The Quake-Catcher Network

QCN leverages innovative sensor technology, a sophisticated data infrastructure, and educational outreach to provide advanced warning of earthquakes.

The Quake-Catcher Network

Screenshot from the QCN site, capturing February aftershocks in Haiti.

The Quake-Catcher Network, operated by a team of Earth Science researchers and educators in southern California, uses environmental sensors in everyday devices and software for distributed data analysis to provide scientifically and socially responsive data interpretation. Project co-PI Elizabeth Cochran and QCN Educator Jenny Saltzman shared some inside details on how they make it work.


Sensor Technology.  The same technology that tells your Wii you've bowled a strike, or changes your iPhone display to landscape view when you turn it, is used by QCN to sense and record ground shakes such as earthquakes. QCN software works with the standard accelerometers in Apple laptops and ThinkPads (these devices lock your hard drive if they sense a drop). Desktop computer users can purchase a small USB sensor (free for teachers, see Education below). With multiple sensors in one region, data can help quickly pinpoint areas of highest seismic activity in order to best direct emergency response.

Dealing with data pulses. With the suddenness and infrequency of seismic events, data come all at once. Rather than continuously or opportunistically uploading data to the main server, ground shake data are preliminarily analyzed on an observer’s machine. Almost instantly, each machine sends minimal data on shake amplitude, time, and location, allowing QCN to accommodate data from potentially hundreds of thousands of observers in one area. More detailed data are downloaded later.

The science. By installing thousands of low-cost sensors QCN can achieve a much denser observations of earthquakes than is possible with the current seismic network. These data are used to learn more about how earthquakes break a fault and how seismic waves travel through the Earth. In addition, by installing many sensors in a single building QCN researchers can determine how a building responds to shaking (a few research papers cited below).

Recruitment. In early March 2010, QCN actively recruited observers in Chile to record valuable data on aftershocks. But seismic events can inspire participation even without formal recruiting: project director Elizabeth Cochran said that almost 20 volunteers signed up within a day of the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy.

Earthquake education. Free sensors for teachers allow year-round quake monitoring by classrooms. Sets of 15 sensors can be borrowed for two weeks, so students can use the technology during a unit on seismology. QCN Live software lets students view active seismic events around the globe, as well as local vibrations picked up by their sensors. While the curriculum currently covers the earth science of seismic events, new materials are in the works that teach how to respond to earthquake emergencies. 

Open The Quake-Catcher Network home page

More info on sensor technology for citizen science…

More about the BOINC software platform for distributed data analysis…

Cochran, Elizabeth S., Lawrence, Jesse F., Christensen, Carl, Jakka, Ravi S. (2009). The Quake-Catcher Network: Citizen Science Expanding Seismic Horizons. Seismological Research Letters 80: 26-30.

Cochran, Elizabeth S., Lawrence, Jesse F., Christensen, Carl, and Chung, Angela. (2009). A Novel Strong-Motion Seismic Network for Community Participation in Earthquake Monitoring. IEEE Instrumentation and Measurement Magazine. December, 2009.

O'Connell, Daniel R. H. (31 October 2008). Perspectives, Geophysics: Assessing Ground Shaking. Science. 322(5902):686 – 687.

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