Grillo Shakes Up Earthquake Early Warning Systems

USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures advances game-changing open source earthquake sensors

USAID
USAID
Aug 12, 2020 · 5 min read
Grillo Head Seismologist Luis Rodriguez teaches schoolchildren about seismology when installing sensors in their schools. Lessons include how the system works and what they should do when they hear the alarm. / Grillo

Five seconds after an alarm sounds, schoolchildren in Oaxaca, Mexico, exit their classrooms in orderly lines to the playground, preparing in case an earthquake may be on its way.

This earthquake drill is made possible by internet-connected sensors that detect earthquakes in Mexico and cost a fraction of traditional earthquake warning systems. Oaxaca has been rocked by numerous deadly earthquakes over the last decade, including one in June, making earthquake monitoring particularly important for this state.

With support from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), the Mexico-based company Grillo developed a low-cost, open source earthquake early warning (EEW) system known as OpenEEW. Thanks to Grillo’s affordable system that enables schools and communities to install their own sensors, the children in Oaxaca can reach safety before the shaking reaches them.

Grillo’s innovative approach brings real-time, accurate information about earthquake risk into homes, offices, and schools. Customized alerts provide valuable information in real time, telling users when an earthquake will reach them and its strength. On top of providing information that is more accurate than traditional early warning systems and more accessible to the public, Grillo sensors cost $50 and do not require ongoing maintenance, while other sensors cost more than $20,000 to build and incur additional annual costs of thousands of dollars to maintain and operate.

DIV was an early investor in Grillo and provided seed money that enabled the company to further develop its promising technology. This investment also helped Grillo deploy sensors along the Mexican coastline and in Chile to measure the impact of warning notifications and demonstrate the technology’s accuracy and technical viability for additional partners.

Since 2017, OpenEEW has generated more than one terabyte of data — the equivalent of 310,000 pictures — from Grillo sensors in Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. This dataset, hosted on AWS Open Data, includes information from large earthquakes of magnitudes 6 and 7. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Oregon are already working with this data, which will enable new machine learning methods to measure and detect earthquakes.

“For years, [earthquake early warning systems] have only been possible with very significant governmental financing, due to the high cost of dedicated infrastructure and development of algorithms,” said Grillo Founder Andres Meira. “We expect that OpenEEW will remove these barriers and work towards a future where everyone who lives in seismically active areas can feel safe.”

During a Grillo public address system installation in a school in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, Grillo’s head seismologist, Luis Rodriguez, explains how it works to the local community. / Grillo

The Linux Foundation, a nonprofit enabling mass innovations through open source technology, will host Grillo’s OpenEEW project in collaboration with IBM to accelerate the standardization and deployment of earthquake early warning systems. USAID support has enabled Grillo to refine and share the technologies with the Linux Foundation and IBM. IBM is adding OpenEEW into the Call for Code deployment pipeline, which provides resources, mentorship, and an ecosystem of potential partners to expand the technology’s reach and real-world adoption.

“The OpenEEW Project represents the very best in technology and in open source,” said Mike Dolan, senior vice president and general manager of projects at the Linux Foundation. “We’re pleased to be able to host and support such an important project and community at the Linux Foundation. The open source community can enable rapid development and deployment of these critical systems across the world.”

OpenEEW accelerates the standardization and deployment of early warning systems to prepare for earthquakes around the world. OpenEEW can sense, detect, and analyze earthquakes and alert communities. The project was founded by Grillo with support from IBM, USAID, AWS, the Clinton Foundation, and Arrow Electronics.

Luis Rodriguez, the head seismologist at Grillo, explains the equipment to local community members. / Grillo

The primary goal of the project is to encourage a variety of innovators — makers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, seismologists — to build their own early warning systems in places like Nepal, New Zealand, Ecuador, and other seismic regions. Open source collaborations can also build upon and improve OpenEEW by advancing the sensor’s hardware design and creating new methods to alert citizens, such as at a school in Oaxaca.

Grillo is an exemplary DIV investment — a small, socially conscious business that addresses a problem affecting millions of people with an incredibly cost-effective solution.

Through strategic and early investments in new organizations like Grillo, USAID has supported a breakthrough technology with the potential to help millions of people all over the world, including Oaxacan students who are now safer at school in an earthquake-prone region.

DIV is USAID’s open innovation program that provides grant funding to test new ideas, take strategic risks, build evidence of what works, and scale the highest impact and most cost-effective solutions. DIV is an important way for for-profit companies — comprising 43 percent of DIV’s portfolio — to partner with USAID to transform lives across the world.

Co-founded in 2010 by 2019 Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael Kremer, DIV invests in innovative, evidence-driven solutions that transform millions of lives at a fraction of the usual cost. DIV has supported over 225 innovations that have directly improved more than 55 million lives across 46 countries. USAID accepts applications to DIV from anyone, anywhere, anytime. For more information, visit www.usaid.gov/DIV.

About the Author

Courtney Calvin is a communications advisor with USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures.

U.S. Agency for International Development

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