Apple Bringing Big Biometric Data To Medical Research

Yesterday’s Apple event in Cupertino, California, sparked a lot of excitement mostly thanks to the Apple Watch announcement. The wearable iPhone peripheral was priced, given a release date in ten countries, and demonstrated in a way that made smart watches finally seem essential to the future of consumer technology. That said, Apple made an arguably much bigger announcement at the top of the presentation: it unveiled ResearchKit.

ResearchKit has already produced five medical research apps. (image via apple.com)

ResearchKit has already produced five medical research apps. (image via apple.com)

ResearchKit is a software framework that is intended to greatly improve the breadth of medical research data available to scientists and clinicians. When Tim Cook handed the stage to Jeff Williams, the importance of such an SDK became very clear.

According to Williams, researchers have a great amount of trouble recruiting for medical research. Small sample sizes, infrequent data and subjective input plague the subsequent research, but the most significant challenge is the nature of communication flow. It’s one-way – subjects send data to the researchers and don’t hear back on results for a very long time, if ever.

With research kit, all of the above problems are addressed. The SDK is open source so that apps created with it are available across many platforms. To participate in research all a subject has to do is download software to her phone and submit data by performing simple tasks on her mobile device of choice. Participants have access to real time metrics for their own perusal.

As of yesterday’s presentation, Apple’s ResearchKit is responsible for five medical research apps, developed with universities from around the United States. Apps for parkinsons, asthma, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and diabetes will all be made available on multiple platforms so that researchers can benefit from unprecedented sample numbers without compromising objectivity through the practice of offering cash for participation.

The new approach to medical research, as enabled by Apple’s initiative, will inevitably bring up the usual data collection privacy concerns. Here Apple has once again restated its policy in regards to user data: the company will not have access to the information collected by these apps.

Apple’s choice to value user privacy in its medical research projects underlines the intimate nature of what’s being collected by the research apps. Though it is not being organized into a template for authentication purposes, the research apps are collecting large amounts of identity information having to do with a user’s medical history, including biometrics. That’s critical data, with a great deal of value when attached to contextual and  biographical identification.

For Apple to incorporate privacy by design  in this case highlights the noble intentions behind ResearchKit. Not only will users not be targeted by pharmaceutical ads, they can rest assured that no one but the researchers are privy to their health data.