ResearchKit and Open Source

As part of their March 9th event, Apple introduced a new framework called ‘ResearchKit’. I’ve read a lot of glowing articles about it since, but one thing really bothered me. A lot of these articles sight it being ‘open source’ as proof that this is something truly altruistic that Cupertino is working on for the social good. I’ve talked to a lot of people since the launch, and the problem is no one seems to know exactly what parts of it are open source, or even what it does. Are the 5 iOS apps built to date open source? Is the data in an open format? Is it the server part that’s open source?

Let’s start with the question “Have Apple developed an open format for exchanging medical data between apps and servers?”. The answer lies in a technical overview document Apple published here:

Keep in mind that ResearchKit currently doesn’t include:

  • A defined data format for how ResearchKit structured data is serialized. All ResearchKit objects support NSSecureCoding, and sample code exists outside the framework for serializing them to JSON.

For the non-technical among us, that’s a no. Apple hasn’t defined a standard format, but they may in the future.

So what about the server infrastructure required to receive and store ResearchKit data? That also appears to be a no. On Apple’s future todo list is “Secure communication mechanisms between your app and your server”. Even that suggests that you’ll still need your own server. This article seems to suggest that in its current form ‘Sage Bionetworks’ is running some of the servers for data collection, on the Amazon AWS platform. Is the code they are writing open source, or are they one of many collection providers that can be used? The answer to that seems unclear.

So what about the 5 apps written to date, are they open source? I couldn’t find an answer to that one, but the same technical document referenced above does outline a bit about how you build a ResearchKit app:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 11.03.32 am

This seems to indicate that ResearchKit, just like most other iOS frameworks is a set of tools for building an iOS app that simplifies some of the things you’d need to do to collect patient data. The intention of open sourcing this part of it seems to be to encourage developers to build modules for it which would all be iOS only as well. Apple states as much in their technical document:

…developers are encouraged to build new modules and share them with the community

So, currently at least, there’s no open source server components, no open format for exchanging data and an iOS only open source framework that Apple want developers to build modules for. Don’t get me wrong, this still sounds like a huge step forward for medical research data collection. What it doesn’t sound like though is Apple’s altruistic gift to the world from which they receive no benefits. They benefit by selling more iPhones, either directly to researchers or through positive marketing associated with this endeavour. That’s not a bad reason to do something, especially if you’re a company, but it does mean ResearchKit might not be the cross-platform neutral playground that the term ‘open source’ conjures up.

Fear of Apple

There is an unfortunate climate of fear in the software community today.


As harsh as this article sounds in places, it’s a fascinating read. I agree with almost all of it. You can bet that it’s causing all sorts of private discussions among developers around the world. I seriously doubt you’ll see those discussions happening much in the open though. They’ll be confined to Twitter DMs, iMessages and private Slack channels. It’s one of those odd instances where if you don’t see this article widely distributed, you’ll know it hit a bit too close to home.

Google Play Starts Reviewing Apps

“We started reviewing all apps and games before they’re published – it’s rolled out 100%…And developers haven’t noticed the change.”

– Purnima Kochikar, Director of Business Development for Google Play

File this one under “things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime”. I don’t know how I feel about this yet. The Apple review process is an insane PITA for developers to deal with, so all I can hope is that Google doesn’t follow their lead.

[episodes count] == 2

Episode 1 of Topical is out (links: web, Pocket Casts). This brings our total to 2, because hey, we’re programmers and that’s how we roll.

Our plan is to release a new episode once a week, on Friday. If you’re in America that’s probably Thursday for you, because you don’t live in the future like we do. It’s ironic, after explaining in episode 0 about how we weren’t just going to be talking about tech that we did, but rest assured the next episode is something else entirely.

Our hope is that we can make a show that doesn’t attract partisan support. We want Apple people, Google people…and hey…even People people! Whether we get there or not is anyones guess. In the meantime it’s been fun reading the various feedback we’ve received so far.

We Shipped!

Shipping is hard. So hard that sometimes I like to make joke websites about it. My personal favourite would have to be, for my friend Marc, who I honestly believe will ship the most amazing design app we’ve ever seen. Just not today, well let me refresh, yep, not today. A close second was the one I made for my co-founder Philip, when he said he was feeling a bit de-motivated. That’s how this site was born. It’s half Silicon Valley joke, half long running office gag, but I still go there from time to time to have a laugh.

But today, today we actually shipped a real thing. Pocket Casts 5.0 for Android. An amazing effort spanning many months of development, with some truly awesome design and features. If you want to read more, you could do worse than start here:


These Aren’t The Clones You’re Looking For

But it’s only from that angle. Every other look at the Galaxy S6 reveals a phone that is markedly different from the iPhone 6. And some of the similarities are thanks to those being the most optimal ways to manage this sort of construction. You want a phone that’s made out of metal? Well, your speaker grille is going to be a series of circular holes. Want to use that metal frame as an antenna? Alright, you’ll need to divide it up with some plastic strips so you can properly manage Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and LTE.


I don’t want my blog to turn into a place where I just quote other people, but Derek Kessler puts the whole ‘THE GALAXY S6 IS AN IPHONE CLONE. OMG. OMG. OMG.’ outrage to bed.