California Institute of Technology

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What are the basic requirements to be a volunteer?

A: You need to have an internet-connected computer that stays on all the time, and can be connected to the seismometer all the time.  We support Windows XP, Vista, and Win7; also Mac OS X (10.4+) and Linux (2.6.0+).  A laptop is OK.  (… unless you cart it around like many of us do, in which case it can’t stay connected to the device all the time.)

Q: Do I need to be a computer expert to make it all work?

A: No!  If you can use a web browser (which must be true if you're reading this!), know how to insert a plug into a socket (you can plug in a lamp, right?), and can use double-sided sticky tape, you're expert enough for us.

Q: I don't quite live in Pasadena, California, USA; how close is "close enough" to be a volunteer?

A: The general boundaries of our initial project are the cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, and San Marino.  The eastern boundary is roughly Santa Anita Avenue; the western boundary runs from JPL and the east-facing hills above Arroyo Seco down to Eagle Rock.  If you live on the fringe of these boundaries, please do apply anyway as there may be good reasons to extend a bit further your way.

We have dreams of expanding to large city coverage in other quake-prone regions around the globe after our Pasadena prototype proves successful.

Q: How big is the seismometer, where do I put it, and what keeps it in place?

Phidget to mouse comparisonA: The seismometer is about the size of a computer mouse or wallet, roughly 1”x2”x3” and weighs a couple of ounces. The device needs to go on a flat surface that moves with the building structure and otherwise is stationary. Ideally, that means a floor close to a wall, or on the wall itself near the floor, but a heavy desk will do.  We provide self-stick hook-and-loop fastener tape and industrial double-sided sticky-tape with the device, so that it can be securely attached on either carpeted or smooth surfaces.  Locations that work well include hardwood or tile or vinyl flooring, brick fireplace hearth or mantle, windowsills, baseboards, and the underside of heavy desks/tables. Attaching to the side of a PC is not recommended. The USB cable is six feet long, to provide flexibility in choosing a good location.  Here are some example installations:

carpethardwood floorhearth

Q: What does the red triangle and letter N on the label mean?

A: The triangle is intended to point to the north after the seismometer is installed.  If possible, point it north:-)  If that's just not feasible, try if possible first to point it south, then either east or west.  Many walls are oriented north/south/east/west, so the likelihood is that the nearest wall is at least oriented to one of the four major compass directions.  If you have a creatively oriented home, it would be helpful to attempt to get a major direction orientation.  But any orientation is better than no seismometer at all!  [No, we have not consulted a feng shui practitioner.]

Q: What type of internet connection do I need?

A: Anything you have today will work just fine.  Part of the research is to understand how communications systems fail during an earthquake, so we want a variety of internet connection types and services represented in the project.

Q: Do I have to pay for anything to participate?  What if my dog chews up the device?

A: The seismometer is provided at no cost to you.  We’d like you to take reasonable care of it as they cost us about $100 each, but if it is broken or lost or stolen, there is no cost to you.  We can discuss whether sending you a replacement makes sense.

Q: This project goes for years… suppose I want to quit, then what do I do?

A:  We hope you’ll let us know, and we’ll arrange to get the device back.  In the meantime, simply unplugging the device is a very effective way to “quit.”

Q: Can I move the seismometer to some other room, or even house?

A: Of course!  However, since that changes the location, we’d like to know that you’ve moved it and the details of the new location.  (see below for more)

Q: Why do you need to install software on my computer?  I’m nervous about viruses and spyware and privacy of my other data.

A:  The physical device contains no real computer or software—it simply measures the motion it experiences—so we rely on your computer to run an application to read the measurements and occasionally send an alert when a strong motion is measured.  The application also sends a daily “heartbeat” so that our analysis servers know that all is well during quiet periods (which we hope is most of the time!).  Our software does not read or modify any other information on your computer, period.  As with all downloaded software, you extend a degree of trust to us—the provider—that our software application only does what we say it does.  We take the Caltech reputation very seriously, and we intend to preserve it.  The software is produced by professionals who are more worried about this issue (personally and professionally) than most folks are.

Q: I’m a power user, lots of video games and stuff; will the application slow me down?

A: No.  You will never notice a performance impact from the software.

Q: Can I see how much my house is shaking?

A: Yes!  There are several ways that you can see what is being measured.  One is a window displayed by the CSN application on your PC that shows a professional-appearing seismogram, with three squiggly lines. Another is a web page map that shows a real time “blip” when a seismometer reports unusually strong shaking; you can tap your device and within five seconds see an indicator on the map.  You can open/close these windows at any time without affecting the data collection and monitoring.

Q:  Can I uninstall the software myself if I change my mind?

A: Yes, there is an “uninstall” system; it is included in the software installation package.

Q: My computer has a firewall; is that a problem?

A: Not a problem.  If you can run a web browser without difficulties, our little piece of software will be happy.

Q:  What personal information do you need to know about me?  There’s some sort of registration process, right?

A:  We don’t need much, and we take extremely good care of what little we ask of you.  We need to know the physical location of the device (e.g., street address, and what floor it’s on, and what it’s attached to), an email address (so we can contact you when something seems amiss from our end), and optionally a telephone number.  We don’t even need to know your name… although it makes human interaction easier!

Q:  Will anyone else be able to see my home address or email address?

A:  No.  We immediately convert your home address into latitude and longitude coordinates, and use those coordinates in our system.  Your home address will be stored offline, not online, so even we have to open a locked cabinet to find it.

Q:  But anyone can see my device status on a web page map… isn’t that the same as listing my address?

A:  No, because we don’t display the exact location of a device, but rather a larger region (e.g., a city block) in which some device exists.  Only you can guess that a device in that region actually is at your home—and there might be another device that happens to be within a few hundred yards of your house.

Q:  Do you ever need to visit my house?

A:  No.  We really, really don’t want to make house calls.

Q:  If I apply to be a volunteer, why might I be rejected?

A:  A thousand devices sounds like a lot… but it really isn’t.  We hope to place a device every quarter-mile, which means about 15 per square mile over about 70 square miles.  If your neighbor up the block signed up first, we might not be able to devote one to you as well.

Q:  How can I impress my friends & family with this?

A:  Show them the CSN application seismogram window while tapping the seismometer gently at first and at 20 second intervals, with increasing force.  You can also open up the activity map web page so that you can see that your block "glows" (while tapping) more than others.

Q:  Who is behind Community Seismic Network?

A:   CSN is an ongoing project of the Caltech and the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, with generous support from the Moore Foundation.  It has also received support from the National Science Foundation under NSF award CNS-0932392.  The Project Manager is Dr. Richard Guy.  Key research faculty/staff include:  Dr. Robert Clayton (Geophysics), Dr. Thomas Heaton (Civil Engineering), Dr. Monica Kohler (Civil Engineering), Dr. Mani Chandy (Computer Science), Dr. Andreas Krause (Computer Science) and Dr. Julian Bunn (CACR).

Q:  I'd like to contact a real live person; how do I do that?

A: First email our help line and if that doesn't seem to be satisfactory, then email Project Manager Richard Guy, or as a last resort telephone Richard at (626) 395-8354.

Q:  I really want to help my community!  How do I apply?

A: Thank you!  Click here to apply.

CaltechGordon and Betty Moore FoundationNational Science FoundationSeismological LaboratoryGeological and Planetary Sciences