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InfoQ Homepage News Apple Open-sources Mobile Framework to Support Medical Research

Apple Open-sources Mobile Framework to Support Medical Research

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At its Spring Forward keynote, Apple announced a new iOS ResearchKit framework aimed at enabling the use of mobile devices as a network of sensors for medical research. The framework will be open-sourced to developers next month.

According to Apple, “ResearchKit takes advantage of the sensors and capabilities of iPhone to track movement, take measurements, and record data,” thus allowing developers to create apps for medical research. ResearchKit is composed of three main modules:

  • Surveys, which provides a pre-built UI that will allow developers to create surveys by specifying questions and types of answers.
  • Informed Consent, which will make it possible to deal with the legal requirement of informing participants about what kind of data will be required of them and who will be allowed to access it. If informed consent is required, this module will allow to collect participants’ signatures.
  • Active Tasks, which are a collection of modules that access HealthKit and CoreMotion to collect passive data that may be of interest to medical researchers. ResearchKit will initially include five Active Task modules that fall into four general categories: motor activities, fitness, cognition, and voice. Active tasks use the iPhone accelerometer, gyroscope, touch interface, and audio input to collect data in a semi-controlled way. Apple developed these modules in collaboration with medical research institutions such as Stanford Medicine, University of Oxford, and others.

Research Kit is the second step that Apple has taken into the field of health monitoring after entering that field last year with HealthKit. As Apple stated, one of the potential benefits from open-sourcing ResearchKit is the possibility of community contributions extending the framework, e.g. by supporting a variety of informed consent modules, data collecting modules, etc. Given the tight integration with iOS, it is yet unclear, as of now, how easy it could be to extend ResearchKit so that it can run on other mobile platforms.

Apple made also explicit that ResearchKit will not include features to ensure secure communication mechanisms between apps and servers, nor provides any survey scheduling capabilities, preferred data format and so on. Apple stressed furthermore that they will not have access to user health data.

Reactions to Apple’s announcement have been of varying tones, ranging from recognizing a big opportunity in ResearchKit, to highlighting the possible “ethics quagmire” it could entail, due to the necessity of “ensuring that participants are eligible for studies, that they are knowledgeable about the risks, and that their data is secure” and does not allow re-identification. Another kind of criticism is related to the fact that iPhones actually represent less than 15% of all smartphones worldwide, whereas about 81.5% of users run Android, thus potentially "hindering" research.


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