A Case for Open Source Concussion Research

The Case for Open Source Concussion Research

Not so long ago, the divide between hardware and software was fairly distinct. Certain companies made hardware and others made software. Or, to be more precise, companies made software and others scrambled like hell to make hardware that would run it. This was the time of the 80s and 90s PC market — Microsoft was king and others fought each other to build the machines that would run Microsoft’s software. But as time went by and the silicon got smaller and more diverse, it made sense for the manufacturers to also implement their own software. They knew how the hardware was supposed to function, after all. We see this now with smartphones and tablets. Apple makes their own hardware and software. Samsung makes the phones and and the heavily-modded Android OS that run them. And, of course, we see it with the wearable market. If you want to see the data from your FitBit, you need the FitBit app. The same goes for Misfit and Jawbone and the Microsoft Band. Truth be told, this is usually a perfectly workable system. But the boom of the wearable market has brought with it the proliferation of devices that do more than just track steps. Multiple companies now produce products that measure force and damage done to the head in efforts to try and reduce or at least understand concussions — a now-important issue in sports that we should have paid attention to years ago. But if individual companies are making their own hardware and software to collect this data, the collaboration disappears. Important sharing of knowledge goes by the wayside. Everything gets segmented and compartmentalized. With the threat of head injuries looming so large, should we not strive to pool our collective research? Can we not create products for both good and profit?

The term “open source” brings with it some confusion. Open source was spawned out of the Free Software movement, and in the name lies the first problem. When many people read the term “free software,” they think of those handy programs one can download for free off of SourceForge. It is true that many developers offer their products free of charge, but that’s not what free software or open source is about.

In the 1990s, Linus Torvalds — in either one of the most important acts in the history of computer science or one of the stupidest moves in the world of business, depending on who you ask — created his own variation on the Unix operating system and released it, for free, to anyone who wanted to try it out. It was released under the GNU Public License. The GPL basically* states that anything released under said license is free to be tested, used, and modified. Those who make modifications are even free to sell their product for profit, so long as they pay the GPL forward and release their code for the same testing and modification.

*I know I’m giving a very high overview of this. My apologies to the hardcore free software people out there.

Torvalds’ flavor of Unix was named Linux, and if you haven’t heard of it, your nerdiest friends sure have. It runs almost every web server, ATM, smart tv, and super computer, and can be found on around 50% of the world’s smartphones. This article is being written on a laptop running Linux. Company after company took Torvalds’ work and improved upon it, personalized it, and commoditized it. All they had to do was show their work.

This is how open source works. Google doesn’t technically make money off of Android, which is based on Linux. They do make money off the Android Store and the data the OS collects about users’ habits. Companies like Ubuntu and Red Hat make a killing selling their special flavor of Linux for servers, and/or by selling support for that software. Sure, some organizations do it just to do it — to work toward a common goal of creating something great and exciting — and for the mere challenge of it. But do not be fooled, there’s big money to be found in open source, in one way or another. Device manufacturers need not be afraid, especially when their work goes toward the greater good.

Imagine a company that makes sensors for football helmets. We have covered quite of few of them at this site. The sensors are meant to measure impacts and forces that could lead to brain injuries. The company packages their devices with their special software and sells it to professional, collegiate, and even high school teams. Meanwhile, another company is doing the exact same thing and selling their wares to other such teams. Who’s right? Who has the best data? Each system is self-contained so there’s no opportunity for this type of data to be compared, contrasted, and improved upon.

This is where innovation and collaboration stops. Sure, each company gets their share of the pie, but they’re not necessarily making athletes safer. This data is somewhat useful in the hands of coaches and parents, but imagine if it were open to research groups — if doctors and scientists could pick apart the code to find exactly what was being measured and submit improvements to the software. We might actually have a chance at learning something.

In a recent article about CTE, Deadspin‘s Barry Petchesky wrote:

We don’t know a lot. We don’t know the rate at which CTE develops, or the mechanism. We don’t know the correlation with playing football as compared to other contact sports. We don’t know if some people are predisposed to developing it. We don’t know how its symptoms manifest in the living. (We don’t know if it has symptoms—correlation is not causation.) We don’t know if there’s treatment. Each announcement of another CTE-riddled NFL brain amounts to, basically, cataloguing.

Petchesky is exactly right. We’re at a stalemate with this issue. If a company were truly passionate about this, they would release their software under the GPL. They could still make and sell their hardware, but others would be able to sift through the mechanisms for measuring head injuries and submit advancements to make it better. Other companies could edit and enhance this code and implement it into their own sensors. Another company could come along and do the same. Meanwhile, everyone competing in this space would constantly be working to make better systems for tracking these types of things. Researchers, now armed with the code that powers these systems, could implement it into their own experiments and research. The conversation might still take a while, but at least everyone would be speaking the same language.

I understand that the point of all these systems is to make money. They give coaches and parents peace of mind knowing that steps are being taken to protect player safety. But there’s an untapped market here of contributing to the greater good. There’s still money to be made, it just comes with a little extra peace of mind that when a company uses this hypothetical open source system, they are putting their work out there for all to see. They are daring others to create a better system. These dares only lead to other dares, and sooner or later, people might actually learn something definitive about this subject. Players get better and companies still make money — imagine that.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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Vilnius Blekaitis
Vilnius Blekaitis

I’ve heard of Linux and I’m not even a nerd (my brother is a computer programmer though). Open sourcing to try and tackle this problem sounds interesting. But I wonder if high tech gadgets like sensors would be helpful or necessary.

1) Every brain is different. Not all football players have developed CTE. And if you’ve seen the excellent Frontline series (PBS) “League of Denial” you’d know that it has been demonstrated that even repeated subconcussive blows to the head can lead to CTE. So clearly, some individuals are more sensitive to blows to the head than others. How do you measure that?

2) Simple rule changes could mitigate (though not eliminate) the problem. Pete Carroll of the Seahawks has been teaching his players to lead with their shoulders, not their heads, when making tackles. Why not make that mandatory for all teams?
Punish the head hunters more severely. Burfict of the Bengals, who has a reputation for nasty hits, got a 3 game suspension for knocking the extremely talented Antonio Brown out of a playoff game last season. Give them 4 games for the first infraction, 8 for the second and a full year for the third and I assure you both players and organizations would get the message. It’s absurd that pot smokers are suspended for longer periods in the NFL than the dirty players.
Finally, three documented concussions and you’re out of the NFL. Recently, a Syracuse QB was told by the team doctor that he couldn’t play anymore for the team because he had suffered his third concussion. Unfortunately, since the NCAA doesn’t track concussions, he was able to apply to play for other universities.
Take that same stance in the NFL. It would cause a ruckus at first, but most assuredly it would usher in sweeping changes to the game.

Rock D Casbah
Rock D Casbah

I think that software that could allow players to get back out onto the field because they might not be susceptible to CTE would be very helpful. It would mean we can weed out the pussies and keep football a game of REAL men. How American would THAT be??