California scientists have pitched a plan, during a meeting in Japan, to develop a global network of app-enabled smartphones — already equipped with sophisticated vibration sensors — to create a kind of flash-mob earthquake early warning system.

In Japan, where the population is particularly alert to the risk of earthquakes, 170,000 smartphone users have already downloaded the app.

"We have the app downloaded by people all over the world, but currently, the density of the phones" that use the application is "still relatively low," Qingkai Kong, a doctoral student who worked on the project told the Daily Cal student newspaper.

The data collected could in turn be used to alert residents as quickly as possible about a quake, potentially saving countless lives.

All smartphones have built-in accelerometers that detect motion, which serves a number of functions for the phone, such helping to orient photos on the screen.

The trick for the app was to "teach" phones — using algorithms designed by the scientists with the help of Telekom Innovation Laboratories — the difference between human movement and movement of the earth.

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