How the Apple Watch will usher in a new era of health research

On Tuesday, Apple didn’t spend a lot of time talking specifics about its “Next Big Thing”. Questions left unanswered include “how long will the battery last?” and “When exactly will it be released?”

But something that Tim Cook, among others, did spend a long time talking is the amount of health information that your Apple Watch will eventually collect on you, and how the device could help can “motivate people to be more active and more healthy”.

While I’ve long argued that the problem with wearables (the Fitbits and Jawbone Ups of the world) is that, while they collect a lot of data on you, they don’t actually apply that data in many ways that are truly useful to you. (Aggregated, there have been some cool applications of this data, including this chart put together by Jawbone after the recent Napa earthquake. But more on this later) So why does Apple have a chance to succeed where others have fallen short? The opportunity lies in Apple’s ability to use this information it collects on you will now be collecting on you to productive uses.

Providing real-time health information to you and your healthcare provider

Between the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, users will be carrying an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a barometer, a GPS beacon and a heart rate monitor. These devices will be capable of collecting thousands of data points a day on our health and activity. With these sensors (as well as any other third-party sensors that could be connected through HealthKit) and the new Health app, Apple will now aggregate all information about your heath and activity in one place. This will provide a much larger window into your health and fitness than any wearable has provided before. And think how useful this data will be farther down the line, when the watch will (I’m sure) measure everything from blood pressure to oxygen levels. That kind of data, when combined with information about your activities (and hopefully soon again health-related genetic data from companies like 23andMe), could provide you and your doctor with important early warning signs. Yet, on the individual level this kind of data is only so useful. The real boon to society comes when this data is aggregated.

A massive health and activity database

We’ve seen how companies have been successful at using aggregate data provided by wearables to reduce their health insurance premiums, but this is just one example of how the data collected by these devices can be put to good use.

The true potential for this data, when aggregated, will be to provide the most complete picture of society’s health that we’ve ever had. This massive new health and activity database, when combined with other information, could lead to some fascinating insights on what makes people healthy. First, it’s important to note why Apple is in a unique position to be able to do this.

Because Apple is first and foremost a product company, with over 50% of its revenue coming for iPhone sales alone, it doesn’t have the same monetary interest in data as some of its competitors. That allows Apple to both provide assurances of privacy and put the data to more altruistic uses. While these two options may come into conflict with one another, they do provide Apple a huge opportunity. Given the company’s (correct) stance on the privacy of your health data (they’ve made specific promises about how not even Apple will have access to it) if they did want to facilitate the creation of this database they would have to have clear consent from customers before releasing any of this de-identified data. This database would be an incredible boon to health researchers. At no other time in human history was it possible to both collect and analyze this amount of health data. We don’t yet know what trends it will uncover or problems it will help solve, but potential of this data is enormous.

Companies increasingly have the ability to collect and analyze more and more information on us and our behavior. Most of this data is used to sell us more stuff. It’s about time that we harness this information in truly equitable way, one that would provide dividends not just to the customers or the companies collecting the data but to society as a whole. With the Apple Watch, Apple has the potential to build a database that could unequivocally change the world for the better.

Comments or questions? Send them to me @jeremysjacob