Engineering Hero: Nandini Kappiah Helps Put Early Earthquake Warnings in Your Pocket

August 29, 2023

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Engineering Hero: Nandini Kappiah Helps Put Early Earthquake Warnings in Your Pocket

Welcome to the second installment of Engineering Heroes, sponsored by Wind River, where we take a closer look at the lives of unsung heroes in the world of engineering whose work impacts uncountable lives across the globe.  See the bottom of the article for additional content on Nandini Kappiah and our other heroes.

Nandini Kappiah didn’t own a computer until she was 18.

She grew up in Bangalore, India, as her parents’ — a banker and an economics professor who came of age amidst India’s independence movement — only child. She attended an all-girls school that offered computer science as an elective course, which provided her with brief opportunities during class to familiarize herself with the technology and coding practices. She didn’t get a computer of her own until she eventually decided to pursue the subject in college.

Now she manages 180 people in the Android group at Google, where she is a senior director of software engineering who focuses on the areas of location, authentication, and personal safety. Specifically, Nandini and her team contributed to the development of COVID-19 exposure notifications and to California’s ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system.

The ShakeAlert system impacts millions of Android device users all along the west coast of the U.S. thanks to Nandini and her team, seismologic expertise from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and several other partners.

Enabling Ground-Shaking Developments

Across the pacific seaboard the USGS maintains a buried network of seismometers called ShakeAlert that detects ground movement and analyzes the data gathered to determine whether that movement is an earthquake, and what the severity may be. If it is, an alert can be sent out via message from a carrier and the ShakeAlert app to residents nearby so they can take appropriate safety precautions.

So, Android set out to develop an early warning system that would instead reside directly within people’s cellphones. The phones contain sensors that can tell when the device is shaking a certain way. If multiple phones in a given area are shaking in the same manner, Android can then extrapolate that data and use it to identify the earthquake’s epicenter, magnitude, and coverage area, as well as send an alert straight to the device. And with the billions of Android devices in use, Nandini says, they have plenty of sensors available to examine data from.

Implementing the warning system was not easy, though. It was rolled out in phases to ensure the operating quality of the system’s software and infrastructure.

While there were some updates shipped in the core of Android’s frameworks, implementing this system didn’t have much to do with altering the core operating systems in Android devices. Most of the work for the early warning system was done through Google Play Services, a module that exists across all Android devices. Additionally, Nandini and her team had to build out servers to enable the alerting system and a user interface to ensure proper displays for the users.

Of course, Nandini has participated in several other projects related to public safety as well, from car crash detection to COVID-19 exposure notifications. “My teams work on building products that keep Android users safe,” Nandini says.

There are billions of Android devices in use around the globe. A reach that extensive enabled use of those exposure notifications Nandini’s team worked on across over 80 countries. Over half of the eligible population of UK users utilized the notifications, which, according to Nandini, are believed to have helped prevent 10,000 deaths.

“We're trying to help a great deal of people — we're trying to solve important, impactful areas in well-thought-out ways.”

Nandini has helped engineer and develop projects that have and will continue to save thousands of lives around the globe. The scale alone is impressive work for someone who took her coding exams in school on paper.

Editor's Note: For more Engineering Hero content, check out the links below.

Daire McNamara, Director and Firmware Engineer, Emdalo Technologies:

Nandini Kappiah, Senior Director of Software Engineering, Google:

Valentyn Hlukhotskyy, Senior Java Software Engineer, Euristiq: