When an earthquake strikes, it’s time to focus

All earthquakes in the past 30 days. (Data source: USGS)

Transforming real-time data into a life-saving app

Not only do earthquakes shake our planet nearly every day, but large ones strike, and they strike often. From 1900–2015, an average of one magnitude 8 and higher earthquake occurred per year across the globe. And when looking one level lower — magnitude 7 to 7.9 — an average of 15 quakes struck per year around the world in that time frame.

These historical stats from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) serve as just one short preface to the deep narrative of how earthquakes profoundly impact modern-day society. One-third of the deadliest earthquakes since 1900 occurred in the relatively short span between December 2003 and January 2010. And of the estimated 2.5 million global earthquake fatalities from 1900 to 2015, approximately 30 percent of the deaths occurred in about the last decade and a half.

Deadly earthquakes since 2000. (Data source: USGS)

Studying earthquakes means studying numbers — magnitude, depth, rupture size, and populations impacted in countless ways. One-by-one, the individual pieces of earthquake data fill a hypothetical tray until the collection of information in that tray merges together to tell the broad story for that specific quake. Turn that virtual tray upside down to see the chaos that can follow. Every earthquake is unique.

Nepal, April 2015

On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal approximately 50 miles northwest of highly-populated Kathmandu. Key facts and figures from the United Nations paint a grim picture of the aftermath of that quake: more than 8,600 dead; more than 16,800 injured, at least 5.6 million affected; at least 2.8 million displaced; and more than 1 million people in need of food assistance.

One subsidiary piece of data, though, takes the conversation in a wholly different direction: 23 million mobile phones. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) published an in-depth Earthquake Reconnaissance Team Report of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. According to the EERI, 23 million mobile phones served the population of 26.5 million people in Nepal at the time of the quake, compared to just 840,000 landline phones. Even more, 80 to 90 percent of mobile towers continued to operate in the aftermath of the devastating quake.

Amidst the rubble, earthquake victims largely stayed connected.

A clear Foquos

In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, chaos can often be the defining force. From seconds to hours to days after the quake, demand for reliable and relevant information vastly outweighs its supply, and thus confusion takes over. Real-time information exists but there’s no clear way to make sense of it. There’s too much information to sort through, or the information is too hard to find — or a combination of both.

The hypocenter of an earthquake, also known as the focus, is the point within Earth where a quake rupture begins. The focus is the origin of an earthquake from which seismic waves radiate — the true center of the quake.

It’s time to discover the focus for earthquakes on the mobile spectrum.

Foquos is an inclusive mobile app that brings together various bits of real-time earthquake data in a single place to provide relevant information about the disaster that is still unfolding. Through the inclusion and filtering of relevant data, those directly impacted are able to quickly find out what is happening and what they can and should do about it.

Visual representation of a recent earthquake. (Data source: USGS)

The current, initial phase of the project is about discovery — finding additional data sources to complement USGS data, determining other sources of reliable information and how to obtain that information in a timely manner, determining dependable sources for news aggregation, dissecting the utility of streaming Twitter data, and more.

And the upcoming second phase is crucial in that the creation of a scalable aggregation methodology must be followed by a well-executed user experience design. Bringing clarity to those in the midst of major chaos — through both aggregation and design — is paramount.

With all real-time data being collected and shared in a single place, Foquos will soon exist to mitigate damage, and, in extreme situations, save lives. The data is there, now it’s time to bring the focus.

Matt Mills is a Knight-VICE Fellow at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Email him about this project, or connect with him via Twitter or Instagram.