Researchers Struggle to Use Apple Watch in Studies Due to Sudden Algorithm Changes

Researchers are rethinking plans to use the Apple Watch in studies after finding inconsistencies in the data gathered by the device (via The Verge).

apple watch series 6 product red back
Inconsistencies in the Apple Watch's heart rate variability data are reportedly caused by Apple tweaking the device's algorithms, meaning that data from the same time period can change without warning. Associate professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and developer of the Beiwe data platform, J.P. Onnela, told The Verge:

These algorithms are what we would call black boxes — they're not transparent. So it's impossible to know what's in them.

Research fellows at Brigham and Women's Hospital exported the heart rate data from Apple Watches for the same period of time, but several months apart. The data should have been identical, but since it is filtered through an algorithm prior to export it was drastically different.

Apple changes its algorithms regularly and without warning, so exporting the same data at different times may use different algorithms. Beyond heart rate variability, researchers looking into sleep tracking have experienced similar problems with changes to algorithms.

This mostly precludes commercial devices from being used by researchers, resulting in the need for devices specifically designed to collect data for scientific studies. While this is adequate for some studies, it heavily constrains research into the medical value of commercially available products for users. Some researchers say that Apple should publicize the changes it makes to algorithms or make the Apple Watch's raw data available.

Related Forum: Apple Watch

Top Rated Comments

csfossett Avatar
25 weeks ago
I have to admit I find this incredibly disconcerting. I get that companies like Apple are commercially driven, and algorithms tend to be in service to that, but they're also touting the Apple Watch as a major healthcare related device. Shouldn't medical/biological diagnoses and research be driven purely by data and information, and not by what amounts to programming developed to interpret data in advance of receiving it?
Score: 45 Votes (Like | Disagree)
hailey bee Avatar
25 weeks ago
It's the same principle as with raw format in photos – pro users need raw data.
Score: 32 Votes (Like | Disagree)
rjohnstone Avatar
25 weeks ago

Everyone here is a medical expert apparently
You don't have to be a medical expert to understand data analysis.
If the baseline data is changed via an algorithm update, you need to know how that algorithm was changed to account the data discrepancy.
Without the info, the data becomes useless.
Score: 19 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Malus120 Avatar
25 weeks ago
This is so incredibly disappointing, and yet also so undeniably Apple.

It's both funny and sad that one of the few aspects of Steve Jobs Apple that Tim Cook has chosen not to change, the company's intense secrecy, continues to be its downfall in so many current and potential markets.

Apple is fortunate to be the only real player in the wearables market at the moment. Despite the complaints, I would imagine most researchers will continue to work with Apple for the time being as they're the only game in town. That said, just as in the pro and corporate markets, Apple will eventually struggle to retain research clients in the long run if it continues to cling to its asinine refusal to provide even a basic level of transparency.

If Apple wants to expand outside of the consumer market in a serious way it needs to understand that secrecy is not the asset it is there but a serious liability that many folks just aren't going to be willing or able to deal with.
Score: 18 Votes (Like | Disagree)
rjohnstone Avatar
25 weeks ago

Welcome to working with data. Getting and pre-processing data to improve quality uses upward of 70% of the project time. Data is constantly changing due to legal or technical issues or to make it better for users other than you. Any study based on data needs to be able to handle these changes.
In order for a study to account for the changes, it needs to know what was changed. It would need the raw data or the algorithms to compare, so they can account for those changes.
Since Apple doesn't provide that information, the data collected is largely useless.
Score: 18 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Mrjetsondc Avatar
25 weeks ago
Apple: this watch is your health monitor!

also Apple: lol psych thanks for the 400 bucks
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Related Stories

apple watch ecg

Woman Credits Apple Watch Heart Rate Alerts With Saving Her Life

Saturday November 27, 2021 11:23 am PST by
A former nurse practitioner has thanked her Apple Watch and its Low Heart Rate notification for likely saving her life, crediting the watch's advanced and proactive health and medical capabilities for alerting her to a potentially life-threatening condition. 68-year old Patti Sohn was gifted an Apple Watch for Mother's Day by her son and has since developed a habit of closing her activity...
mount sinai covid apple watch study

New Study Suggests Apple Watch Heart Rate Sensor Can Predict COVID-19 Up to a Week Before a Swab Test

Wednesday February 10, 2021 1:24 am PST by
A new study by Mount Sinai researchers has found that an Apple Watch can effectively predict a positive COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before current PCR-based nasal swab tests (via TechCrunch). Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research, the "Warrior Watch Study" involved several hundred Mount Sinai healthcare workers using a dedicated Apple Watch and iPhone app...
iPhone 13 Face ID

Apple Researching Ways to Use iPhone Camera to Detect Childhood Autism

Tuesday September 21, 2021 2:56 am PDT by
Apple is reportedly researching ways to use the cameras inside of the iPhone to detect childhood autism, aiming to use data from the camera to observe a child's behavior that could be used for early diagnosis, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal. According to the report, which echoes previously announced research efforts, Apple wants to be able to use the camera inside of...
apple watch ecg

Apple Launches Study into Whether Apple Watch Can Detect COVID-19

Wednesday April 14, 2021 4:51 am PDT by
Apple is launching a study into whether the Apple Watch can be used to detect respiratory illnesses such as coronavirus or flu, in partnership with the University of Washington and the Seattle Flu Study. Apple initially announced the study at its Time Flies event in September last year, it but has only recently launched, as spotted by Apple Insider.The goal of the study is to see if the...
apple watch series 6 blood oxygen monitoring 1

University Health Network Launches Apple Watch Heart Failure Study That Uses Blood Oxygen App

Thursday February 18, 2021 12:32 pm PST by
The University Health Network today announced the launch of a new study that will aim to find out how the Apple Watch can help with the early identification of heart failure progression. Cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross is teaming up with Apple to compare data collected by the Apple Watch to data routinely collected from the physical tests heart failure patients undergo. The study will...
apple health keynote

Apple's Increasing Focus on Health Seen in Recent Hiring Trends, New Board Member

Thursday November 11, 2021 8:26 am PST by
Apple has been talking for years about the role it wants to play in human health, led by the Apple Watch and its array of health-related features. With the Apple Watch maturing and Apple increasing its integration of health-focused hardware and software, several pieces of evidence suggest the company is positioning itself for an even bigger expansion in that direction. According to trends...
life360 app

Tile Buyer Life360 Selling Precise Location Data on Millions of Users [Updated]

Monday December 6, 2021 1:05 pm PST by
Location tracking service Life360 has been selling the precise location data of tens of millions of its users, according to a new report shared by The Markup. Life360 bills itself as a "family safety platform" app that is meant to allow family members to keep tabs on one another with tracking software that's installed on smartphones, and there are both Android and iPhone apps. The...
apple privacy

Apple Fined $11 Million in Italy for Employing 'Aggressive Methods' in Commercial Use of Private Data

Friday November 26, 2021 2:16 am PST by
Apple and Google were today fined 10 million euros ($11 million) by Italy's Competition Authority for allegedly using user data for commercial purposes without their explicit consent, an apparent violation of Italy's Consumer Code. The authority claims that both Apple and Google utilize user data they collect through their services for promotional and economic activity without the user's...

Popular Stories

iPhone 14 Mock pill and hole thumb

ProMotion Now Expected to Remain Exclusive to iPhone 14 Pro Models, Not Expand to Entire Lineup

Sunday January 16, 2022 8:56 am PST by
Continuing the tradition set with the iPhone 13 Pro, only the highest-end iPhone 14 models will feature Apple's ProMotion display technology, according to a respected display analyst. Ross Young, who on multiple occasions has detailed accurate information about Apple's future products, said in a tweet that ProMotion will not be expanded to the entire iPhone 14 lineup and will remain...
AirPods Pro Gen 3 Mock Feature Red

AirPods Pro 2 Could Start a New Accessory Ecosystem

Friday January 14, 2022 2:34 am PST by
Apple's second-generation AirPods Pro could arrive alongside a new series of accessories, recent leaked images suggest. Alleged leaked photos of the next-generation AirPods Pro obtained by MacRumors showed a charging case with a metal loop on the side for attaching a strap. Apple has not used this design for any of its other AirPod models and it is unclear why it would be added in this...
Unlikely Products 2022 Feature

Six Rumored Apple Products You're Unlikely to See This Year

Saturday January 15, 2022 2:06 pm PST by
Much has been said about what consumers could see from Apple in 2022, but the company is also working on a handful of rumored products that aren't expected to be unveiled for at least another 12 months, and in some cases a lot longer. Of course, that's assuming they get released at all. Apple works on many potential products some of which ultimately never see the light of day. With that in...
safari icon blue banner

Safari Bug Allows Websites to Track Your Recent Browsing Activity in Real Time

Sunday January 16, 2022 3:37 pm PST by
A bug in WebKit's implementation of a JavaScript API called IndexedDB can reveal your recent browsing history and even your identity, according to a blog post shared on Friday by browser fingerprinting service FingerprintJS. In a nutshell, the bug allows any website that uses IndexedDB to access the names of IndexedDB databases generated by other websites during a user's browsing session....
ipad air 4 video

New iPad Air Rumored to Launch This Spring With A15 Chip, 5G, Center Stage Camera, and More

Saturday January 15, 2022 8:05 pm PST by
Apple is planning to release a fifth-generation iPad Air with similar features as the sixth-generation iPad mini, including an A15 Bionic chip, 12-megapixel Ultra Wide front camera with Center Stage support, 5G for cellular models, and Quad-LED True Tone flash, according to Japanese blog Mac Otakara. Citing reliables sources in China, the report claims that the new iPad Air could be...
netflix2

Netflix Again Raises Prices for All Plans, 4K Streaming Now $20 Per Month

Friday January 14, 2022 12:46 pm PST by
Netflix today updated the prices for its streaming plans, and all of its offerings are now more expensive. The Basic plan is now priced at $9.99 per month, the Standard plan is priced at $15.49 per month, and the Premium plan is priced at $19.99 per month. The Basic plan is $1 more expensive, up from $8.99 per month. This plan allows users to watch on just one screen at a time, and it limits ...
top stories 20220115

Top Stories: iPhone 14 Pro Rumors, iCloud Private Relay Controversy, iOS 15.2.1 Released, and More

Saturday January 15, 2022 6:00 am PST by
Hole-punch? Pill? Hole-punch and pill? Rumors about what the front camera system on the iPhone 14 Pro will look like are evolving rapidly, and it now appears we might be getting a novel but potentially controversial design later this year. Other major stories this week included some confusion and controversy about iCloud Private Relay being disabled for some T-Mobile customers, increasing...
iPhone 14 Mock pill and hole 16x9 120hz

Analyst: All iPhone 14 Models to Feature 120Hz Displays, 6GB of RAM, and More

Friday January 14, 2022 7:02 am PST by
Apple is rumored to announce four new iPhone 14 models in September, and ahead of time, analyst Jeff Pu has outlined his expectations for the devices. In a research note with Haitong International Securities, obtained by MacRumors, Pu claimed that all iPhone 14 models will feature ProMotion displays, compared to only Pro models currently. ProMotion enables a variable refresh rate up to 120Hz ...