Old rules need not apply – Is Apple tearing up the rule book with #ResearchKit?

‘Purdah’ will very shortly fall over Whitehall as the General Election looms.

At the end of March the airspace over government will be closed for six weeks or so. No new flights of Ministerial fancy can take off. Those already in the air may continue on their way but must do so in radio silence.

Still, we have a few weeks to go yet. And a number could still get off the ground in that time.

The Budget is always an opportunity for pre-election give aways. We await the publication of more details of George Freeman’s innovation and medtech review. The report and recommendations of the Breaking Boundaries may well get clearance to leave its holding pattern.

All perfectly proper and natural of course, albeit frustrating.

The big news in research this week has not come from the UK Government. It has come from the United States. Apple – in its annual showcase of new offerings – launched ResearchKit. https://www.apple.com/researchkit/

This technology will allow researchers to build apps to recruit Apple consumers to research as well as to use their data and activity to answer scientific questions.

I say ‘will’ but actually five projects are already underway including ones in asthma, heart health and Parkinson’s. Last night, one of the research teams involved said over 10,000 people had signed up to their project in the days since ResearchKit was launched. It would have taken them many, many months to have achieved the same recruitment through traditional routes, they say. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-11/apple-researchkit-sees-thousands-sign-up-amid-bias-criticism . That’s quite something.

As you might expect, Apple’s foray into this arena has divided opinion. Some say revolution. Others wag their finger. Thousands of column inches have already been written about the ethics, potential bias in the research because of the narrow profile of Apple’s iPhone customer base, and why they haven’t teamed up with other companies such as Google to expand its reach.

All of these are valid questions that need answers. But, I for one, can’t help but feel genuinely excited by what Apple have launched. And perhaps the early impact tells us something about the different ‘contract’ consumers feel they have with the Apples of this world versus their Government.

Use of data, new technology platforms for its analysis, furthermore its use to engage consumers, has been the talk of the town for years. It’s been the ‘apple in the eye of the health research system.’

However, this week, it feels as though that Apple has stepped out of this eye – in the manner of 007 in those opening titles to any James Bond movie – fired the gun and completely changed our field of vision.

Y’know I think Apple will be quite happy to have ignited the ensuing debate. It will not worry too much about the criticisms. It will expect its partners to help them address these. It recognises that this is an area where old rules need not apply and some rules need to be broken. It has the relative freedom to do this while others review reviews and wring their hands. It also knows it’s consumers better than researchers perhaps know their participants?

There is perhaps one criticism or disappointment I would level at ResearchKit. It may very well be premature. But, for a company which has built its reputation consumer-led innovation, I would like to see this sort of platform also opened up to patients to share their data, inquire and innovate as PatientsLikeMe has shown is possible.

That would also be true to one of its seven founding principles – empathy. I’ve been using the following J.K.Rowling quote in some of my talks lately. It’s worth pondering by all those in the business of innovation:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Have a good day.

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