Google is launching a new research app called ‘Google Health Studies’ on Android, which will allow users to take part in any medical study by answering survey questions. In an official blog post, Google said the first study in the Health Studies app will look at the question of “Respiratory Health”.
Researchers will use data from the study to “understand respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19,” and the app will help them connect with potential study participants.
In November last year, Apple had introduced its own Research App, in which users could also participate in health studies. Apple’s app had launched with three health studies, which would rely on information from the iPhone and Watch after the user had consented to participation.
The Google study is only open to adults in the US. Google has partnered with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital for this study. In a blogpost, Google said that “COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of research in providing information about disease and treatments. However, it’s challenging for researchers to recruit enough volunteers so that studies are representative of the general population.”
The idea with the app is to provide a platform which can help researchers reach a “large and diverse population,” according to the company.
“With COVID-19 emerging alongside seasonal respiratory pathogens, research is now needed more than ever to develop more effective treatments and mitigation strategies. Google Health Studies provides people with a secure and easy way to take part in medical research, while letting researchers discover novel epidemiological insights into respiratory diseases,” Dr John Brownstein, professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief Innovation Officer of Boston Children’s Hospital in the press release.
How will Google’s Health Research app work?
The app is available to download on the Play Store and anyone with an Android device can download it and take part in the research. There’s no mention of when an iOS app will be introduced. Users who wish to participate in the studies will have to answer survey questions and contribute relevant data.
What about privacy in the Google Health Research app?
Google says they focused on three principles when creating the app: First was to keep the information safe, second was to treat it responsibly, and third being to put participants in control. All data with the Health Research app is “encrypted and research data is stored securely,” says Google, though it does not give further details around this in the blog post.
Participants will have transparency and control over their personal information, according to the company. They will be able to see what data is being contributed, when it is shared and why it is shared.
Regarding privacy, Google says data from the study will not “be sold, shared with advertisers, or be used to show participants ads.” The data will only be used for purposes for which explicit consent has been granted, notes the blog.
The app will also make it easy for participants to “understand their contributions to each study, as well as access research findings when they become available.”
What will the first study focus on?
The first study will focus on respiratory illnesses and how they “evolve in communities and differ across risk factors such as age, and activities such as travel,” notes the blogpost.
Participants will have to “self-report how they feel, what symptoms they may be experiencing, any preventative measures they’ve taken, and additional information such as COVID-19 or influenza test results.”
Google says it will use federated learning and analytics for the study to keep the data private. Federated Learning is collaborative machine learning technology, which keeps a user’s data private, even when the data is used for machine learning purposes.
In Federated learning, the dataset never leaves the person’s device. With Federated learning, researchers can still get “aggregate insights based on encrypted, combined updates from many devices,” notes Google. Researchers will be able to “examine trends to understand the link between mobility (such as the number of daily trips a person makes outside the home) and the spread of COVID-19,” with the help of the app.