OK, everybody in San Francisco drop your laptops.

Is a lot of lousy data better than no data at all?

The “Quake Catcher” software is designed to record all vibrations on a computer, but only uploads the info if many computers in the same geographic area record “dramatic shaking.”

Now here’s the thing: serious earthquakes: typically associated with power outages and telecommunications failures. So you’re relying on the notion that in the few seconds before the earthquake brings down your local internet connection, your computer will be able to transmit useful data. Because otherwise no one is going to know there was an earthquake. Uh.

Would this thing be of any use outside the immediate disaster zone? Maybe. A computer accelerometer can do about 1/250 of a g, which corresponds to the bottom of the “weak shaking” category in earthquake effects. If you look at the USGS shakemap for Haiti, for example, all of the island of Hispaniola and parts of nearby islands in the caribbean registered enough shaking to trigger any hypothetical laptop detectors. That could give you a good idea of location and magnitude a few minutes or even an hour before official observatories.

And of course for seismologists reconstructing the disaster in later months or years, the data could lead to any number of publications.


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