Apple ResearchKit is Open Source, But is it “Open”?


For now, the answer is “we don’t know”.

But… the question is very important and worth tracking over the coming months. Let’s not assume that open source will equate to “open”.

What is ResearchKit?

Apple’s press release provided an overview of ResearchKit:

Apple® today announced ResearchKit™, an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, helping doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone® apps. World-class research institutions have already developed apps with ResearchKit for studies on asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

…With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, we saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of Operations. “ResearchKit gives the scientific community access to a diverse, global population and more ways to collect data than ever before.”

Many members of the research community have had high praise for ResearchKit. For more details and perspectives about ResearchKit, see the list of articles appended at the bottom of this post.

While it might be surprising to some, Apple has long-embraced open source software. A ZDNet article described Steve Jobs as an “open source pioneer”.

Lessons From Google Android and It’s Control Points

Google Android OS has provided a lesson in how software can be open source but not very open.

When Android was released in 2007, it received many kudos for being open source software. For a few years the collective consciousness of the tech industry described Apple iOS as a walled garden and typically described Android as being a much more open alternative.

However, over time it’s become apparent that BOTH Android and iOS are walled gardens, albeit with different types of walls, in different locations, and having different levels of permeability.

Andreas Constantinou of Vision Mobile wrote about Android “control points”:

You thought Android was open? The Android governance model consists of an elaborate set of control points that allows Google to bundle its own services and control the exact software and hardware make-up on every handset.

He goes on to list and describe eight specific Android control points:

  1. Private branches
  2. Closed review process
  3. Speed of evolution
  4. Incomplete software
  5. Gated developer community
  6. Anti-fragmentation agreement
  7. Private roadmap
  8. Android trademark

What Are ResearchKit’s Control Points?

At the start, one of the biggest control points is that ResearchKit will only be available to people with iPhones. Philip Jones, MD notes that this raises many issues for researchers: selection bias, attrition bias, observer bias, big data.

So for now, if you use an Android, Windows or Blackberry phone (i.e., about 80% of us) you’re out of luck.

It’s not possible at this time to answer fully the question about control points. ResearchKit won’t be released until next month, so we don’t know many details. We’ll also need to see how the ResearchKit tookkit/software is received and adopted in the researcher, developer, and app user communities. Finally,  we’ll need not simply  to look at how ResearchKit stands as independent, discrete software — we’ll need to understand how it fits into the broader Apple business ecosystem, including HealthKit and iOS 8. All this will take some time to discern.

However, simply asking the question is important…and the purpose of this post is to sensitize you to the issue and get it on your radar for the future. Let’s keep our eyes open.



From Apple

Apple Introduces ResearchKit, Giving Medical Researchers the Tools to Revolutionize Medical Studies
Apple Press Release; March 9, 2015

Apple ResearchKit Website

ResearchKit Technical Overview
Apple, March 2015

Optimistic, Excited

Smartphones set for large-scale health studies
Nature; March 10, 2015

Forget the Watch. Apple’s most meaningful debut is on the iPhone
Fortune; March 10, 2015

Better by Default: An Access Conversation with John Wilbanks
Quantified Self; March 10, 2015

Why ResearchKit Is the Most Exciting Thing Apple Announced Yesterday
Lifehacker; March 10, 2015

How Apple is fixing the world
TransAppLantic; March 10, 2015

Can Apple Help Cure Cancer? Its New ResearchKit Could Be The Start
Forbes; March 9, 2015

Circumspective, Cautious

Apple’s ResearchKit is not (yet) ready for primetime — A medical researcher’s perspective.
Ramblings of a Doctor; March 10, 2015

Apple’s new ResearchKit: ‘Ethics quagmire’ or medical research aid?
The Verge; March 10, 2015

How Apple’s New Health App Could Be Used — or Abused
Time; March 10, 2015

Apple Watch & ResearchKit Raise Privacy Concerns
CBS Miami; March 10, 2015

Why Apple’s New ResearchKit Could Have a Diversity Problem
BuzzFeed News; March 10, 2015

Will the iPhone transform medicine? The FDA may have something to say
Ars Technica; March 10, 2015

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