Cal prof Joshua Bloom makes earthquake alert kit for $110

Joshua Bloom's homemade earthquake early warning alarm, in a Gregoire box. Photo: Joshua Bloom

Joshua Bloom’s homemade earthquake early warning alarm, in a box from East Bay restaurant Grégoire. Photo: Joshua Bloom

When the Napa earthquake struck on Aug. 24, Joshua Bloom had a 5-second warning.

That’s because the UC Berkeley astronomy professor likes to tinker.

It was when Bloom was a beta tester in the prototype ShakeAlert system being developed by a consortium of seismological researchers (including UC Berkeley), that he came up with an idea.

“I thought it was silly that every time I closed my laptop, I couldn’t get a warning,” he said.

So Bloom cobbled together his own earthquake alarm for just over $100, using a Raspberry Pi single-board computer ($36.39), a wired speaker ($14.99), a mini-WiFi adapter ($6.71), and SD card.

To house it, he uses a box from Grégoire, the local restaurant group known for its crispy potato puffs. And he keeps the device in the living room of his North Berkeley home, next to the fireplace.

ShakeAlert triggered a 10-second early warning alert for the Magnitude 6 Napa quake last month. Bloom’s device provided a five-second warning. (Bloom details how it worked on his blog.)

Meet Joshua Bloom at Uncharted on Oct. 24-25. Get your early-bird tickets now!

For Bloom, this is tinkering with a definite purpose. He sees his demonstration project as validation that Californians could have an earthquake alarm in every home for about the same price as smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms. And he hopes it adds pressure to the legislature to fund the $80 million it will take to roll out the ShakeAlert network beyond its few privileged early testers.

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Joshua Bloom: His kids think the alarm is “super cool.” Photo: courtesy Joshua Bloom

“There’s a huge safety component to it,” Bloom said. “Knowing it’s cheap to make will get the public excited and hopefully get the legislature to fund it.”

Users can set the sensitivity of the alarm. Bloom has his set for something that could cause major damage, like the Napa quake.

With a network in place, he said, users could use the devices as early warning for a wide range of threats, including tsunamis, radiation leaks and chemical spills.

Bloom points out that Japan already has a comprehensive earthquake early alert network. Even with as little as five or 10 seconds warning, trains can be stopped, elevators can be halted at a floor, and residents can shelter under a table. Many lives can potentially be saved with such systems.

Bloom said he plans to finesse his prototype and make more of them so they can be placed in his kids’ classrooms and the homes of friends. He has added a tweetbot feature that listens for new seismic events and spreads the word over social media.

In Bloom’s house, the alarm is certainly proving popular with his children, who are in first and third grade.

“They think it’s super cool and we’ve been practicing,” he said.

Sunday’s quake: UC Berkeley scientists gave 10-second warning (08.25.14)
Magnitude 6 earthquake rattles Berkeley in early hours (08.24.14) 
Are you prepared to help kids, pets when disaster strikes?
Berkeley targets underserved for disaster preparedness (10.04.12)
Gear up for the Big One with help from friends (06.17.10)

Joshua Bloom will be one of the many exciting speakers at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, Oct. 24-25, in downtown Berkeley. For information and tickets visit

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  • Liquefaction Zone Neighbor

    This article skips the key detail that his system is built on top of the California ShakeAlert system; in other words, he still gets his notifications from the ShakeAlert system, which is not publicly available. Widespread implementation would require implentation of the California ShakeAlert system, which is a lot more than $110.

  • John Freeman

    People with children who might like to learn to build things with computers should really please have a look at the Raspberry PI. I’ve included a link. It is the project of a not-for-profit educational foundation in the UK. It is a great achievement. It is popular all over the world. It is useful for so much more than just prototyping earthquake monitors. (I am not affiliated with the foundation or the project. Just a fan.)

  • Gregoire’s makes great fries … but never realized they did shakes too!


  • Infobug

    Okay, Serkes, you get the prize! VBG.

  • Doug F

    True, but well worth it in lives saved & injuries prevented.

  • batardo

    Maybe for demonstration purposes, but mining crypto-currency on a CPU-based machine of any speed is pretty much over. Even using GPUs is finished, you need purpose-built hardware with custom ASICs now.

    Translation — you need to spend money on serious hardware to get your BTC anymore, not a $39 Raspberry PI.

  • batardo

    Good point — average folks don’t have access to ShakeAlert at this time.

    I’m curious how much of the $80M is for building out the sensor network (most of it I bet) vs the infrastructure to allow public access to whatever signal they are able to produce currently (trivial expense probably). My guess is it has more to do with support costs and setting expectations — if they roll out access to the public that don’t understand current capabilities vs. limitations, then perception will be that it all sucks and they won’t get any more funding.

    Maybe somebody who actually knows something cares to chime in.. ;)

  • batardo

    Never mind, answered my own questions:

  • Wondering

    But can anyone get it at all? If so, where

  • Joshua Bloom

    This is exactly right. As I said in the story, I hope it “adds pressure to the legislature to fund the $80 million it will take to roll out the ShakeAlert network beyond its few privileged early testers.”

  • Joshua Bloom
  • Michael King

    How do I get access to the feed? As a programmer/amateur seismologist, I would love to make a taskbar app for this.