Since Apple introduced its ResearchKit software in March, scientists at leading medical schools across the country have written apps to study asthma, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, melanoma, breast cancer and other ailments. Medical experts are hopeful that using smartphones to gather health data from millions of people, with their consent, can open a window to new insights into diseases, treatments and lifestyle effects.
The Apple move was a breakthrough, but a gap remained. "You can't just do research studies on people who can afford iPhones," said Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science at Cornell Tech in New York.
Shortly after Apple introduced ResearchKit, Ms. Estrin, who is also a professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College, started trying to bring similar capability to the other major smartphone software platform, Google's Android. She coordinated the work on a new initiative, ResearchStack, announced on Thursday.
The new software framework will be similar to ResearchKit, which is open source and designed as modular building blocks. The ResearchStack design work is being led by Cornell Tech; Touch Lab, an Android developer; and Open mHealth, a nonprofit start-up focused on software for sharing health data. ResearchStack is being funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
ResearchStack is intended to work smoothly with research projects underway that use Apple's ResearchKit. "Researchers can create a study that is independent of what smartphone is used, and they won't have to start from scratch," said Ms. Estrin, who is also co-founder of Open mHealth.
One of the current projects ResearchStack will soon support is Mole Mapper, an app for a melanoma study developed by the Oregon Health and Science University. The melanoma study involves people taking smartphone pictures of moles at regular intervals to track their growth, with the goal of creating detection algorithms and helping people manage the health of their skin.
The key to successful apps for large-scale studies, Ms. Estrin said, is to develop them for individuals as well as researchers. People, she said, have to control their health data and find it personally useful. That is what will fuel "the growing data-sharing movement," she said, prompting millions of people to "contribute to big-data-derived discovery and understanding" in medicine.