A team of developers & researchers have announced that they are building the long awaited counterpart to ResearchKit for Android with plans to launch a beta version in January 2016.

ResearchStack is being developed a team from Cornell Tech, the nonprofit group Open mHealth, and Android development firm Touchlab. Their work is being supported with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation.

ResearchStack Logo 1

Like ResearchKit, ResearchStack will be a framework on which research apps of all kinds can be built. A key limitation of ResearchKit, though, is the reach of studies built on it. A little over half of American smartphone owners have Android devices. And given the affordability of many Android devices compared to the iPhone, its likely that Android ownership is even greater among lower income individuals.

The ResearchStack team is led by Deborah Estrin, Professor of Computer Science and Public Health at Cornell Tech & Cornell Medical College respectively. She’s also a co-founder of Open mHealth, a nonprofit organization that is promoting an open standard for mobile health data.

As described by the ResearchStack team,

…an overriding goal of ResearchStack is to help developers and researchers with existing apps on iOS more easily adapt those apps for Android. Though the correspondence of features between the two SDKs isn’t one-to-one, the two SDKs will offer enough shared functionality and a common framework and naming scheme to greatly speed up adaptation of ResearchKit(TM) apps to Android (and ResearchStack apps to iOS) and the procedural aspects of running a study on a new platform (such as IRB approval and secure connectivity with a data collection backend).

Right now, ResearchStack is in alpha testing with plans for a publicly available beta version in January 2016. They are however inviting people to contact them if they would like to get started sooner on the ResearchStack platform.

There is one notable name missing on the list of collaborators here – Google. Perhaps there is some behind the scenes involvement (Cornell Tech does currently live in a Google building) but its a bit surprising that there doesn’t appear to be any more formal support for this work.

That could have implications for how ResearchStack’s uptake and real-world implementation. For example, there Apple can enforce a set of rules around the usage of ResearchKit through the developer agreement that the ResearchStack team may not be able to. As such, we may end up needed some sort of disclosure or curation method to help potential participants verify things like IRB review & approval.

It will also be interesting to see how ResearchStack is built to handle the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem. With hundreds of potential devices and numerous different versions of the Android operating system out there, I suspect that a lot of the same challenges of developing regular apps for Android will apply to research apps built on ResearchStack.

Those issues aside, ResearchStack could be another big leap forward for digital health research especially since Android devices are what a majority of people own, both in the US and worldwide. I for one am excited to see what’s launched this January and I’m sure I’m not the only one.