The efficacy of trend analysis using personal health apps


John Grohol, doctor of psychology and founder and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral, has a long-standing concern about the bias of samples used in psychology research. He says now, with the ubiquity of smartphone apps, developers and entrepreneurs are pursuing data without understanding the basics of good, reliable, scientific data collection.

Because of this, he says personal health data cannot be collected by these apps without bias and somehow be transformed into measuring something bigger. The trouble really starts, he says, when data from the apps people use to track and measure their personal health is aggregated in an effort to collect larger datasets, in order to analyze health or well-being trends.

"While the resulting analyses can tell you something about this group of people, it would be inappropriate to suggest it generalizes to the rest of the population (who, demographically and behaviorally, may look and act very differently)," Grohol said. Besides, people don't use the apps long enough to get meaningful data.

In addition to suggesting improvements to personal health apps and potentially networking them, Grohol identified problems associated with gathering population-based data from health apps.

He said biased sampling results from the tiny minority of people who actively and continuously use health apps, but that sampling and continued usage could be improved by passive versus active data collection.

He added that sampling and use could be further improved by the use of a trustworthy authority (not a for-profit company or startup) to collect and store data. Additionally, apps that are aware of one another and exchange relevant health data are the next generation--instead of the current wealth of siloed, unaware apps, he said.

For more on identifying health trends using personal health apps:
- see the PsychCentral article

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