Could an earthquake emoji save lives? Experts seek a universal symbol for ground shaking

Jun 17, 2018

By Sandi Doughton

Seattle Times staff reporter

The emoji for volcanic eruptions has been getting a lot of exposure on Twitter and other social media in recent months, with Volcán de Fuego’s deadly blast in Guatemala and Kilauea’s continuing rampage on Hawaii’s Big Island. Other natural disasters, like tornadoes, cyclones and tsunamis also have emojis that communicate their essence at a glance.

But there’s never been a universal image for the natural disaster that threatens a third of the world’s population: earthquakes.

A small group of experts — including two from Washington state — is working to fill that gap with an open competition for an earth-shaking symbol that transcends language and culture.

“We need an emoji so we can communicate quickly with much larger groups of people,” said Sara McBride, of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “People can process pictures faster than words, and not everybody is fluent in English.”

A native of Washington’s Tri-Cities area and a graduate of Central Washington University, McBride is helping the USGS design the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system. An emoji could be invaluable in crafting short, easy-to-understand alerts that arrive minutes to seconds before strong ground shaking begins, she said.


Social media is already being used by scientists to almost instantaneously locate earthquakes around the globe, as people take to Twitter to report shaking and damage and casualties. An emoji could cut through language barriers and speed the flow of information, said Stephen Hicks, a postdoctoral researcher in seismology at the UK’s University of Southampton and a lead organizer for the #emojiquake project.

“The faster we know an earthquake has happened, the better we can analyze its possible effects and send help in emergency situations,” he said.

The project is also fun for the young researchers who cobbled it together a few weeks ago, Hicks said. Some of their older colleagues likely raised their eyebrows at the idea, he admitted. Many of the initial discussions took place on Twitter, where a lively network of quake scientists and aficionados follow each other and obsessively track major temblors.

The goal of the competition is to attract ideas not just from scientists, but from people skilled in art and graphic design, McBride explained. An effective emoji has to be clear at a very tiny size, instantly recognizable across cultures and friendly to those with colorblindness.

 “You can’t just slap up an emoji and call it day,” she said. “There’s a lot to consider.”

Of the more than 40 entries so far, some portray the Earth cracking like an egg. Others emphasize the human experience, with houses or people being rattled. At least one incorporates a seismograph tracing. The steering committee will winnow the field to four or five finalists. The winner will be selected by popular vote through Twitter.

But simply designing a new emoji isn’t enough to get it accepted.

That’s up to the Unicode Consortium, an international group that approves and standardizes the array of icons on cellphones, computers and social-media platforms around the world.

The steering committee will work with the designer to gain Unicode approval, a process that requires an application and a written justification.

“Anybody can do it, if you have an idea and you have a good case you can make for it,” said Seattle-area native Elizabeth Angell, a member of the #emojiquake steering committee and a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia University.

Angell, who graduated from the University of Washington, grew up with duck-and-cover drills at school. She remembers her grandparents’ stories about the 1949 Olympia earthquake, and at the age of 19 got a firsthand taste when the 2001 Nisqually earthquake shook her rented house in the U-district.

Those experiences helped inspire her decision to specialize in the social, cultural and political aspects of earthquake disasters.

She’s eager to see how an earthquake emoji will fare and evolve in the online world.

The “blue wave” emoji commonly used to signify tsunamis has gained a new life as a symbol for a possible wave of Democratic victories in the coming midterm elections, she pointed out.

“I don’t think we can even predict all the ways this earthquake emoji will be used.”

The deadline for entries is July 14. Guidelines and instructions are spelled out on the #emojiquake website.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com; on Twitter: @SandiDoughton. Sandi Doughton is The Seattle Times' science reporter.

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Sound Seismic7543 15th Avenue NW, Seattle, WA 98117

Mary Ellen and I are both extremely pleased with the work that your crew did.  Please pass on my personal "thank you" to each of them. 

We were pleased with the amount of clean-up that was done at the end of each day. 

Even with your discovery of unforeseen conditions that necessitated additional framing, it was still done within a very reasonable time-frame.  My overall experience with Sound Seismic has been very positive and we will recommend your services to our circle of friends and family.

Again, thank you for a very "enjoyable" experience!

Mark and Mary Ellen Whitesell, Ballard, Seattle

 

 

I wish to praise SOUND SEISMIC for the earthquake retrofit they completed on my home. From the estimate to the finished job, Leif and his crew were professional, hard working, pleasant and exceptionally CLEAN. They handled the permit and inspections seamlessly. Office support from Elizabeth was equally professional, reliable and fast. I can't describe everything so I'll just say the whole experience was great.

Kristin Hill, Wallingford, Seattle

 

 

Sound Seismic was professional and they came when they said they were going to come. They came early and they called me to ask if it was okay to start the work earlier. They explained everything to me. It seemed like a reasonable price for the work because I had read other people’s descriptions on retrofitting on Angies list. The price seemed right in line with what I was expecting.
 
Sarah Morken
 
 
 

 

We recently had Sound Seismic do our earthquake retrofit. I cannot compliment enough the very professional job they did. Leif Jackson, the owner, sat with us for two hours answering questions and explaining how earthquakes work. He was completely above board, not promising more than he could deliver. He left interesting reading material so that we could evaluate and decide for ourselves. The most compelling was from FEMA warning people in the Puget Sound area to do everything they could to protect their homes because of our earthquake risk.

Once we were in contract, Leif sent our information to a structural engineer who drew up the plans. The bid was fair and complete. The crew showed up on the date the job started and completely it quickly. It looks great. Our new pony walls are gorgeous and the bolts and clamps very reassuring. City inspections were completed for the bolting and then for the finished job. This company is certified and high quality. Our house will be sticking around on the foundation. I encourage you to get over gambling about retrofitting and hire these guys. They are great.

Emily Elliott, Queen Anne

 

The crew kept me informed of their progress and plans all the time.  They told me what their plans were, and delivered every time.  Very satisfying knowing I could count on them doing what they promised - when they promised it!

Martin Muller, Olympic Manor, Seattle

 

 

My experience with Sound Seismic was very good. They were upfront about the work that needed to be done, about the cost and about the specific changes that would be required. In general, they had a high level of professionalism. They were on schedule, did a good job and cleaned up afterwards. They actually returned calls, which seems to be rare with contractors. I haven’t had other work of this sort done before. They did a really good job overall. They were very good about scheduling and estimates, and did quality work. They were one of the few providers in the area who would do the work - I thought the price was reasonable. I would use them again in the future.
 
Karl Bystrom
 
 
 

 

Sound Seismic was the most professional group of contractors/employees I have ever dealt with. They were knowledgable, dependable, and skilled. The project lead was obviously well trained and knew what he was doing, was able to effectively manage and direct his crew and subcontractors. A quality job. Discovered an area behind my walls were my house was not up to code. Worked well will me to correct the problem and professional and reasonable about the change order.
 
Andrew Austin, Phinney Ridge
 
 

 

The Sound Seismic crew arrived on time and got started on this structurally engineered and contracted job. It was estimated to take approximately one week to complete this work. The job was completed in 4 days with great professionalism and dedication to the work completed. The work passed a city inspection with no additional work required. The quality of work is excellent with great attention to detail.

Leon Young

 

Based in Ballard, the 2 man crew of Sound Seismic did a very clean, professional job of installing the earthquake retrofit. I was very happy with quality of the work and the way the crew kept the site clean and organized every day. They stick to a firm 8-hour work day for their employees and offer health benefits, a rarity in the contract world, it would seem. So their bid was not the lowest, however was comparable to a number of other firms, within 5-10%. Very punctual and professional in all coordination and in handling the 2 inspections reqd. by the city. No surprises or additional costs. I would recommend this contractor overall.

Jennifer Dovey, Broadview, Seattle

 

 

Sound Seismic did such a thorough job. Looking at their work lets me sleep better at night knowing my house is now very unlikely to shift off its foundations in an earthquake.

P. Kiraly, Madrona, Seattle

 

 

We thank you for the very professional work done by all of your people that we have had contact with.  The crew working here were outstanding, and we were charmed by your lead carpenter, Matt. 

Our basement has not been this clean in 70 years (the house is 70 years old)!

Thanks again,

the Pearsons

Bryant neighborhood, Seattle

 

 

We had a wonderful experience with Sound Seismic.  After the devastating earthquake in Japan my husband and I were quite worried about our 3 story brick home and decided to retrofit our basement as a way to ease our anxiety and protect our family.  

Sound Seismic's estimate was more reasonable than any of the others we got and we felt very confident knowing that Leif and his team have done many retrofits, including our friend's basement.  Leif was able to explain the process to me, answer my questions, and gave me the estimate within an hour of coming to the house.  

The hardest part of the process was moving our furniture and boxes out of the way to prepare the basement - after that things just moved along smoothly.  I had been expecting huge holes in the walls and dust everywhere but the work was really tidy and not nearly as disruptive as I had feared.  My kids and I were able to stay in the house the whole time, only playing out in the backyard a couple times when the banging was loud.  The baby was even able to take naps in the midst of the demolition!  

Matt was very professional and friendly, he always arrived on time and he communicated well, checking in with us at the end of each day to show us the progress of the work.  He was able to finish the work a half-day sooner than planned and there were no hidden costs or extra changes when the invoice arrived.  

I would highly recommend Sound Seismic to anyone -- they were fantastic!

Rachel Opel, Ballard, Seattle

 

 

"Leif

Thanks for the great work on the house - you've done an outstanding job of prompt, low-impact work - and leaving the job site in excellent shape. Appreciate the attention to detail."

 

Wayne Dodge, Ravenna, Seattle

 

"I wanted to follow up and thank you for your good communication, strong planning and flexibility.

Your foreman was great. Very professional, low key, friendly and efficient."

 

Urs Koenig, Madrona, Seattle

They did an excellent job. The whole experience from start to finish was excellent. When they came out they told us what would need to be done, how it would be done and how much it would cost. We set a date and they came. They did the work exactly as they said they would. There were no surprises. The communication with the contractor throughout the process was excellent. The crewmember that came out to do the work did a fantastic job of cleanup afterwards. It was just excellent from start to finish. Because of the work they did we were able to get earthquake insurance, which we had not been able to qualify for previously. We would use them again and we would recommend them to any of our friends.
 
George Murphy, Northgate, Seattle
 
 
 

Sound Seismic gave a very competitive bid, clearly explained everything they were going to do, accomodated my schedule, and produced a very high quality outcome.  I highly recommend them.

Gary Johnson, Wallingford, Seattle

 

 

Dear Leif,

Your crew did a great job!  It was a pleasure to meet them. And as soon as I met your lead carpenter, I knew that everything would be done 'right.' 

They took extra care at every level: and left everything better than ever.  They were able to remove the siding without cutting it, which is great, too.

I am glad that I got to see how substantial the anchors, fasteners, etc. are - and how robustly the plywood panels are nailed in. ( It was hard for me to tell from the blueprints alone.)

I am very happy with all aspects of the plan and the work, Leif.  

 

David Rosenbaum, Sand Point, Seattle

 

 

All in all, we felt the project went extremely well.  Given the number of earthquakes worldwide of late, we are pleased to have had the work done.  We’d rather not have it tested, but we know we are in as good a position as possible if the ground starts shaking!

Barbara E., Capital Hill, Seattle

 

 

I wanted to let you know what a great job that your crew did on our earthquake retrofit.  They were very knowledgeable about the whole process and answered any questions we had without hesitation. Their work was excellent and they finished the job quickly.  I have done my share of remodeling in the past and I can say that they cleaned up after each day’s work more thoroughly than anyone I’ve ever encountered.  They took obvious pride in the retrofit work they did but also in the cleanup. They saw that as an integral part of the Sound Seismic service.  All in all, it was a fast and painless experience.

 

Thanks for assigning those fine young men to our job.

 

Paul Gustie, Fremont

 

 

Sound Seismic performed an engineered retrofit on our house built in 1928.  I've never had a better experience working with a contractor - thoroughly professional (truly experienced and knowledgeable in their craft), they were also excellent communicators throughout the engagement.  And the cleanup afterwards was amazing.  I would recommend them without reservation!

George Murphy, Northgate, Seattle

 

 

I wanted to thank you for the wonderful job you did retrofitting my home in South Seattle. I was aware that it would be a challenge and it proved to offer more problems than we expected. You met them all and did a great job correcting the rot and damage that happened over the years since 1927, when the house was built.

 

When I arrived home yesterday the basement was clean and organized. It was the first time I did not have to spend hours cleaning up after a contractor. Your lead carpenter and his assistant were a great team. Thanks for all your efforts.

 

Regards,

Patrick Murphy, Mount Baker

 

 

I can't think of a single way you could improve the service of your company.  Yours is one of the VERY best companies I've worked with on this home.

Jeannie Macri, West Seattle

 

 

Sound Seismic completed a earthquake retrofit on our house. Their explanation about what to expect and what we'd get was clear and straightforward; the work was completed as described, as scheduled and exactly on time; clean-up: spotless.

 

Harriet B., Ballard

 

 

"The experience with Sound Seismic was possibly the finest I have had in my dealings with any of my trade contractors. Your crew was knowledgable, well informed, hard working, tidy, as well as a pleasure to have on my job."

Jesse Lee Honor, Project Manager, Northwest Homecrafters

 

 

Thank you very much for your excellent work on retrofitting our house.  We appreciated your careful oversight of the project, ongoing contact with the engineering firm, attention to detail, and clean and timely work.  You really rose to the challenges presented by "this old house."

Mike E., Capital Hill, Seattle

 

 

Sound Seismic exhibited a great combination of skill, hard work, and professionalism.  You treated our home and our project as though you were doing it on your own house.

Linda and Rick T. Kirkland, WA

 

 

Everything looks good. Thanks for the all the work your guys did, very professional.

Cheers,

Stuart Jamieson, Montlake

 

 

Sound Seismic did an excellent job of the seismic retrofit on my two-story house, which entailed quite a lot of siding work as I don't have a basement. The workmen were punctual, neat and meticulous. I feel safer because of their work.

Pippa Kiraly., Madrona

 

 

Just wanted to send you a note to express how pleased we are with the work your firm recently completed.  You did exactly what you said you would and the quality of the work is first rate.  Also, please tell Matt how much we enjoyed him.  Thanks,

Gary Johnson, Wallingford

 

 

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