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IN BED, at dinner, on your way to work. Our smartphones are always with us, their sensors capturing data about our lives. That data is priceless to firms like Google and their customers, advertisers. But medical researchers are getting in on the act too. Our phones are turning into tools for doing research in unprecedented detail and scale.

A team from Seattle-based non-profit Sage Bionetworks, for instance, is gathering data from thousands of people with Parkinson’s via an app called mPower. They built the app using Apple’s ResearchKit software, which lets individuals opt in to studies through their iPhone.

The team has not yet published any findings, but earlier this month they revealed some of their numbers when they made the data openly available in the interests of accelerating research. A few dozen researchers have already signed up. “We’re very excited by the response,” says Sage’s Andrew Trister.

The idea behind the smartphone approach is simple. Our phones are packed with sensors, including accelerometers, microphones, gyroscopes, cameras and GPS. They can track everything from how much a person moves to variations in their speech and gait. As speech, gait or activity alter over time, doctors can infer changes in an underlying disease. Many other medical devices, such as blood pressure monitors, can now pipe data straight to our phones too.

This means that phones hold ever more detailed records on our health. ResearchKit lets medical researchers gather that information in an ethical way – by asking for permission. Apple’s system …

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