The prototype app uses the accelerometer present in the devices to act as a basic seismometer, which is used to detect the vibrations from earthquakes.
Developed by a team from the Californian Institute of Technology (Caltech), CrowdShake bypasses the need for external plug-ins.
Many residents of the Pasadena community, a small city within Los Angeles, currently use small seismometers plugged into their PCs or routers to detect tremors.
One challenge the team faces in the use of smartphones as detection agents is differentiating between earthquake vibrations and normal movement.
Richard Guy, part of the team that created CrowdShake said the devices are an “extraordinarily attractive” agent for monitoring earthquakes.
“If there are just enough [phones] that are stationary, which could be a very small percentage, from that we can determine ‘OK, an earthquake is under way and this is how intense it was at a certain point’,” he told the BBC.
“Then the receiving phone says, ‘Well, I know where I am, I know where it started, I know the time difference between when the event began, I know what time it is now, my little phone app can calculate very, very simply in just a few milliseconds, this is how bad I think it’s going to be where I am right now.’
“It can then provide … an alert to this user saying: ‘You have so many seconds before a damaging wave will arrive’,” he added.
Full-scale implementation of the app across California is unlikely without government involvement, given the risk of injury from a false alarm, said Mr Guy.
California’s location on the San Andreas Fault makes it vulnerable to large and frequent earthquakes. In the ‘Great Quake’ of 1906, over 3,000 died after a quake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco.