Apple’s revolutionary ResearchKit deserves a better audience

I’ve just sat through Tim Cook’s Apple announcement, and amongst the shiny stuff was something really important – ResearchKit.  Most smartphone users probably don’t realise how much data their devices are capturing all of the time, or that some of it is quietly being used to influence apps such as the games they play.  The point is, that for the first time ever, aspects of our health and lifestyle can be captured easily.  For medical researchers, access to this personal data could transform the way we perform research on disease and aging.  Even where research projects are able to monitor patients today, the sensors are often unwieldy and it’s difficult to get volunteers to sign up and stay engaged.  To be effective, medical research needs data – not just from ill people, but from those at all stages of the continuum of health and illness.  The issue has always been how to get hold of it.

What Apple announced today is a new initiative whereby researches can ask the iPhone community to help them.  Around 700 million iPhones have been sold, so they cover a significant portion of the global population.  What Apple has done with ResearchKit is to provide a framework allowing researchers to offer users apps which can monitor the sensors relevant to the disease they’re working on.  The apps can engage users by asking them to perform physical tasks, which can help to keep them engaged, but more importantly they can capture enormous quantities of anonymised data from a large base of users which is sent to the researchers.  This, along with derived data from the project can be fed back to the participants, helping them manage their condition on a daily basis.

Currently, researchers can spend months recruiting just a few volunteers for medical trials.  The power of the Appstore could transform that.  A simple sign-up could see today’s few participants turning into hundreds of thousands.  It’s game-changing and could usher in a new era of evidence-based medical research data.  Whilst the data may not be as accurate as that from existing clinical sensors, the sheer scale of it makes it immensely more powerful.   Plus it charts trends in our everyday life – something that is often difficult to do.  It was great to see Apple supporting this.  I was also impressed that the framework is being released as an open source project.

My one complaint was Tim Cook’s audience.  Audiences at Apple events like this have often been derided as being composed chiefly of techie sycophants, who will cheer anything that looks shiny.  That’s led to some brilliant parodies like the iPhone6 launch one from De Ideale Wereld.  As the initial ResearchKit apps were being described we had the expected applause and cheers.  The audience applauded the mPower app which gauges the effect of Parkinson’s disease.  They welcomed the one for diabetes, the one for Asthma and the one for heart disease with similar levels of approval.  But when the final one was presented – to help victims of breast cancer, there was silence in the auditorium.  You could hear them thinking “No, that’s not me – I’ve got testicles.  Show me more of the shiny things.”  It was a shameful part of an unexpectedly surprising and altruistic presentation.  I wonder whether Apple will dub in some applause before they release the video of the event.  I hope they don’t.  Better to be honest about your claque and carry on with the good principles rather than taking the Stalinist approach to falsifying history.

Fortunately the majority of iPhone users aren’t like the people who attend these events.  I sincerely hope that millions of iPhone owners participate in these medical trials, as they could transform our understanding of numerous diseases.  I’d encourage everyone to do so.  It would be nice if the initiative could be opened up to other smartphones, but I’d rather that it be done well with just iPhones than diffused by adding too many Cooks.  I have to admit that I’m not an iPhone user and have never come up with a good reason for changing to Apple.  Today’s presentation may have changed my mind.  Well done Tim.


As a rather sad codicil to this piece I’ve just looked at the most popular posts on Techcrunch, about four hours after Tim Cook stopped speaking.  Techcrunch is a site I respect.  Having said which, this list represents their readers rather more than their journalists.  The most popular posts are:

  • Apple Decries (sic) Death To All The Ports (on the new MacBook)
  • Apple Just Cancelled The Right Click (on the new MacBook)
  • Hands On With The Apple Watch
  • Apple Updates Existing MacBook Air
  • Hands On With The All-New Ultra Thin MacBook with Retina Display
  • The New MacBook Recharges From a Beefy USB Power Brick
  • The Apple Watch Compared to the Competition

I can’t find any posts along the lines of “Apple Rewrites The Rules for Acquiring Medical Research Data”, or “Apple’s ResearchKit Will Revolutionise Healthcare”.

When Tim Cook introduced ResearchKit he quipped that he bet the audience hadn’t expected him to talk about medical research.  He was right about that.  However, I expect he anticipated that the journalists and bloggers in the audience would write about it.  It was one of the most important items of today’s event.  In that respect, it appears he was wrong.   There were just too many distracting shiny things for them to get excited about.

I pray that the average iPhone user will realise the scope of Apple’s gesture in putting resources into ResearchKit, download the apps and participate as part of a more caring community.