Y’know who digs your smartphone? Medical researchers, that’s who.

Nature explores the impact of our little pocket computers on the way medical research is done:

Smartphone apps developed by academics, pharmaceutical companies and technology giants are making possible large studies that collect real-time data on people’s location, environment and health. Last March, for example, Apple debuted its ResearchKit developer tools. Scientists and companies have used these tools to make iPhone apps targeted to specific conditions.

Researchers are only now gaining access to these mobile-collected data sets, but the scope of such programs is expanding: on 21 March, Apple announced that ResearchKit apps can now import a user’s genetic data from the consumer testing service 23andMe, based in Mountain View, California. [Yvonne] Chan’s asthma app and MyHeartCounts, a cardiovascular-disease app developed by Stanford University in California, will be the first to be able to easily incorporate users’ 23andMe data, if participants allow it.

“The biggest thing we’re likely to get with these apps is scale,” says neuroscientist James Beck, vice-president for scientific affairs at the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation in New York City. mPower, a ResearchKit app that is aimed at people with Parkinson’s disease, has enrolled more than 6,800 participants — 3 times the number in the largest previous Parkinson’s study.

Some may be wary about the quality of the data collected by mobile apps; in many of the ResearchKit studies, study personnel do not meet participants, raising questions about the quality of the data that these participants provide. With this in mind, researchers are working to spot-check their app data. Chan’s team has examined whether the height and gender of the asthma-app users correlate as expected with peak flow, a measurement of breathing ability that is usually higher for men and for taller people. So far, that relationship has held up. “We don’t have participants randomly entering bad data,” Chan says.

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