Apple Research Kit is Open Source But Is It “Open”?

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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 toolkit/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

7 replies »

  1. It’s not clear this is open data. Will individuals be able to reuse the raw data, say for other research, or does is it available only to the group that developed the possibly closed app?

  2. dr.dumb,

    I think the most important question I’m raising goes much more to Apple’s mindset, not to their technical architecture.

    I’ll jump to the bottom line: Apple has had a very closed, walled-garden mindset, technology and biz model with their existing ecosystem (hardware,software, partners).

    If ResearchKit is to be successful, Apple will need to open up. This opening will need to go to their mindset, tech, biz model, etc.

    The fact that ResearchKit is open source off the bat is a good sign — BUT we need to see the details.

    The detail of my post is about control points. You list a number of TECHNOLOGICAL control points and I’m inferring your conclusion is that they are “open enough” from what you infer from the Apple’s technical overview.

    Control points come in many categories, not just technological.

    We still need to see the details. Many of the control points will be seen in the user agreements they will have with patients and app developers. We’ll also need to see how tightly RK ties back to the broader Apple healthcare ecosystem (iOS, the Health app, HealthKit).

    Example: the tech specifications in a user agreement can be very reasonable, but the last clause says “Apple reserves the right to change anything in this agreement at any time.” That should make you think twice about how much Apple truly is letting down its walls and trying to be appropriately “open”.

  3. If you go read the technical overview pdf on researchkit
    then you would know what it is.

    Modules consist of Surveys, Informed Consent, Active Tasks, Steps, Results

    All the data is fed via JSON back to your server.

    All these code is in Objective-C.

    Current apps were designed by Apple and given to the institutions.

    What is going to be open source is the Framework, JSON format,
    and probably Apps.

    So for Android you will have to write equivalent in Java and take the JSON
    and send your data back to your server.

    Now Android sensors are not reliable or robust as iphone so advance
    stuff like Accelerometer and Compass may not work depending
    on your phone and OS and manufacturer bought cheap part.
    So don’t cry to Apple about that.

  4. Open source has a fairly precise definition (see the Open Source Initiative, http://opensource.org/ and the Free Software Foundation http://www.fsf.org/ even boils it all down to four freedoms) but I suspect ResearchKit is more about “open data” than software, and “open data” is a much mushier topic that mixes issues of provenance, licensing, privacy, etc. If ResearchKit is built on open source software, it can be ported to any device and non-Apple users will be able to participate. If there are hidden barriers (as the article points out about Android), that would make the promise of open source software a mirage. As for open data, I think we would all be afraid of truly open data for reasons of privacy and patient consent.

  5. Dr. Vader,

    You write: “I’m not sure what open source means any more.” I think that’s one excellent take-away-point from my essay. If you’re confused, then you truly are beginning to understand. Open source software can be surrounded by many different types of business models.

    You also write “My respect for Apple just skyrocketed.” I can understand…but you have to be generous in giving Apple the benefit of the doubt as to the yet unknown details around ResearchKit. It remains to be seen whether ResearchKit becomes something closer to:

    * An open, one-stop-shopping platform for a broad range of clinical research
    * Just one more app silo in the mHealth wasteland

    Adrian, you ask excellent questions. Again, too early to tell…and I understand your skepticism given Apple’s past history of building and defending their walled garden.

  6. Two points were made on Monday:

    “Apple will not be able to see your data.”

    “ResearchKit is open source software so people can adapt it beyond Apple’s devices.”

    This raises three questions:

    How many other significant companies in healthcare are willing to play by these rules?

    How many of the apps built by the “non-profit” academic institutions on the ResearchKit platform will be open source software as well?

    Which apps for ResearchKit or HealthKit should be secret software?

    Why would any patient install an app that was secret software if they had a choice?

  7. Great comprehensive overview.

    !. I’m not sure what open source means any more. This doesn’t sound like it meets the criteria for an open source project. This sounds like they’re allowing people to contribute to what they’re doing.

    2. My respect for Apple just skyrocketed. I think they’re smart to allow people to use their tools and see what happens, rather getting into another business themselves. This is the difference between content creator and delivery. I wasn’t sure what to make of Apple the company in the early post-Jobs days. I think they’re figuring it out.