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Google’s Alert System May Have Failed During Turkey Earthquake Disaster

By Belal Awad · July 28, 2023

In brief…

  • Google's Android Earthquake Alert System faces scrutiny after the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, as a BBC investigation questions its effectiveness.
  • Interviews with hundereds of residents in the earthquake zone revealed that no one received a warning before the deadly quake struck.
  • Google's product manager claims the system activated and sent alerts for major events and aftershocks, but never confirmed these claims with end-users.
  • The Android Earthquake Alert System uses accelerometers to detect earthquakes, but investigation raises major questions over the system's usefulness.
2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake caused the deaths of approximately 67,000 people  VOA/Wikimedia Commons

Following the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in February, Google’s Android Earthquake Alert System is facing questions over its basic effectiveness. One of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history, the catastrophic event claimed roughly 67,000 lives across the two nations. Google, whose Android earthquake alert system utilizes accelerometers to sense earthquakes and provide users with crucial advance notice, claims to have warned millions of people in the region.

A BBC investigation, however, has cast doubt on the system’s effectiveness. Not a single person interviewed for the investigation reported receiving any warning before the deadly quake struck. The probe entailed interviews of residents from three cities in the earthquake zone - Adana, Osmaniye, and Iskenderun.

Micah Berman, product manager for the system at Google, insisted the system worked, stating: “Our system did activate for both of the major events in Turkey, as well as for a number of aftershocks. I’m as sure as we can be that the system activated, and that we did send alerts.”

However, when asked if Google had spoken to anyone who received the alert, he replied, “No.”

The Android Earthquake Alert System is designed to turn the accelerometers built into Android phones into mini seismometers. The devices can theoretically sense earthquakes and form part of a global network that monitors seismic activity, providing users time to seek safety in the event of a quake. The lack of evidence supporting Google’s claims over the system’s effectiveness during the Turkey earthquake has raised questions.

Harold Tobin, Director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, said, “These systems are extremely new, right? They’re at the cutting edge of what’s possible. I feel that if you are delivering an essential sort of life safety, public safety piece of information, then you have a responsibility to be transparent about how it works and how well it works.”