Google’s Android Earthquake Warning System in Turkey Criticized

google earthquake

In a recent BBC Newsnight investigation, it was found that Google’s earthquake warning system for Android apparently failed to notify many residents in Turkey prior to the devastating earthquake that occurred in February.

This system, available on Android smartphones, had promised users up to a minute’s warning before an earthquake strikes. The tech was first announced back in 2020.

Micah Berman, Google’s product lead on the system, stood by the effectiveness of the technology, claiming that alerts were sent to millions of users prior to the first major quake. “We are confident that this system fired and sent alerts,” Berman told the BBC. However, Google was unable to provide substantial evidence that these alerts were widely received, says the publication.

The BBC investigation involved visits to three cities within the earthquake zone, where they spoke to hundreds of people. Despite the predominance of Android phones in Turkey, which account for about 80% of all mobile devices in the country, they found no one who had received a warning prior to the first, most potent tremor.

This alarming finding has sparked criticism of Google’s alert system, with Prof Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, stating, “If Google makes a promise, or makes an implicit promise, to deliver a service like earthquake early warning, then to me, it raises the stakes. They have a responsibility to be able to follow through on something that is directly related to life and limb.”

Google’s Android Earthquake Alert System, announced in Turkey in June 2021, is currently operational in several countries worldwide. When an earthquake of magnitude 4.5 or higher is detected by the network of Android smartphones, an alert is issued, intended to override all other notifications on the user’s device. However, the system’s reliability came under scrutiny following the earthquake in Turkey, where the death toll exceeded 50,000.

Addressing this lack of warnings during the February earthquake, Berman suggested, “It’s possible, given the massive impact of the first event, that this just quietly happened in the background, while users were really paying attention to lots of other things. At the end of the day, I think that’s probably the most likely explanation.”

However, the residents the BBC spoke to insist no alerts arrived. Following the investigation, Google acknowledged the lack of social media chatter about the alerts but did not provide a clear explanation for this discrepancy. The company also declined to share data from user surveys that they claim confirms the system’s effectiveness.

Prof Sukru Ersoy, a Turkish earthquake expert, commented on the situation, stating that while the system could have been beneficial, its failure to work during such a major event raised questions about its reliability. He noted that even his wife, who was in the earthquake zone and owns an Android phone, did not receive an alert.

In a statement given to the BBC, Berman concluded, “During a devastating earthquake event, numerous factors can affect whether users receive, notice, or act on a supplemental alert – including the specific characteristics of the earthquake and the availability of internet connectivity.”

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