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Google alert failed to warn people of Turkey earthquake

Google alert failed to warn people of Turkey earthquake

In February, Turkey was struck by a deadly earthquake that claimed over 50,000 lives. Google’s Earthquake Warning System, which is designed to provide up to a minute’s notice on Android phones before an earthquake hits, was expected to play a crucial role in alerting residents and potentially saving lives. However, a BBC Newsnight investigation revealed that the system failed to reach many Turkish residents before the catastrophic tremor.

Google’s Earthquake Alert System is a core feature of its Android service, operating in dozens of countries worldwide. The system relies on the vast network of Android phones equipped with tiny accelerometers capable of detecting shaking. When multiple phones detect simultaneous shaking, Google can determine the epicenter and estimate the quake’s strength. Alerts are sent when earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or greater are detected, with warnings displayed on users’ screens accompanied by a loud alarm, overriding the phones do not disturb mode.

While Google claims that millions of alerts were sent before the first major quake, the BBC’s investigation found no evidence of widespread warnings received by residents in the earthquake zone. The team visited three cities, Adana, Iskenderun, and Osmaniye, ranging from 70km to 150km away from the epicenter, and spoke to hundreds of people with Android phones. Although they found a limited number of people who received a warning before the second earthquake, no one reported receiving an alert before the first and most powerful quake.

Google’s product lead on the system, Micah Berman, asserted that the system had indeed worked, but the lack of social media activity related to the first earthquake raised questions. While Google shared a pdf with 13 social media posts mentioning a warning, the BBC’s investigation revealed that only one post provided a detailed account, and the author could not confirm its accuracy. Additionally, Google claimed to have received positive feedback from user surveys but declined to share this information.

Experts, including Prof Harold Tobin and Turkish earthquake expert Prof Sukru Ersoy, stressed the importance of transparency when delivering essential life safety information. Google’s system, though relatively new, could be beneficial if it functions properly. However, the failure to provide timely alerts during a major earthquake highlights the need for accountability and transparency from tech companies when it comes to public safety services.

The tragic earthquake in Turkey exposed the shortcomings of Google’s Earthquake Warning System in delivering timely alerts to residents through Android phones. Despite claiming to have sent millions of warnings, the lack of evidence and social media feedback raises concerns about the system’s reliability during critical events. While such technology holds the potential to save lives, tech companies must prioritize transparency and accountability when delivering essential public safety information. Only through openness and continuous improvement can these warning systems truly fulfill their life-saving potential.


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