Whiz-kid in Chile

Santiago teen uses Twitter to create earthquake warning system

By connecting a home earthquake detector to his computer, 14-year-old Sebastian Alegria has devised a means to send accurate predictions of seismic activity 5 to 30 seconds in advance.

Thursday, July 21, 2011  
The @alarmasismos Twitter profile now has more than 30,500 followers. The @alarmasismos Twitter profile now has more than 30,500 followers.

In February 2010 a disastrous earthquake sent a giant swell racing toward the coast of Robinson Crusoe Island. The entire population of the island’s single town would surely have been wiped out had it not been for Martina Maturana, the 12-year-old girl who rang the warning bell just in time for many of the island’s inhabitants to flee to higher ground. That simple warning saved lives.

Now Santiago teen Sebastian Alegria has followed her example, creating a simple, accurate, homemade system to send warning to his fellow citizens when seismic activity is imminent.

After living through the panic and fear of Santiago’s 2010 earthquake, and watching the coverage of Japan’s disastrous tsunami from afar, Alegria realized that what he and his fellow Chileans needed was a system that could provide some kind of warning – even the smallest margin – quickly and efficiently. Always interested in computers and the possibilities of social networking, Alegria saw his opportunity in Twitter.

The 14-year-old computer wiz devised a simple and remarkably functional system to create the Twitter bot @AlarmaSismos. He first purchased an inexpensive domestic earthquake detector, then replaced its internal circuit with hardware that could interpret its readings, which he then connected to his server. Where an ordinary detector would ring its warning, Alegria’s device now automatically tweets it.

Since @AlarmaSismos began in May 2011, it has already garnered some 29,000 followers and has accurately predicted every major seismic event perceptible in Santiago. Now Alegria wants to bring his system to other parts of Chile, providing better advance warning for other zones regularly effected by earthquakes. He is also eager to expand the system to a text messaging and to increase warning time from its current range of 5-30 seconds (just long enough to take cover or to reduce panic) to as much as a full minute.

The success of @AlarmaSismos comes as little surprise given Alegria’s three previous efforts with Twitter bots. His first, @HoraChile, tweets the current time every 10 minutes, a simple system that he launched as a lark but continued when he found that some followers found it useful. The bot @MejorOrtografia, now discontinued, would send warnings to followers regarding typos in their tweets, while @ElMeteorologo tweets weather updates.

With more young entrepreneurs like Alegria, Chile is bound to maintain its position as a regional and global leader in innovation.