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An Oslo professor discovers a reason you can't completely trust health monitoring apps

Jan Grue, a professor at the Department of Special Needs Education at University of Oslo, on stage at TEDxOslo in Norway.
Christina Farr | CNBC
Jan Grue, a professor at the Department of Special Needs Education at University of Oslo, on stage at TEDxOslo in Norway.

As a new parent, Jan Grue recalls feeling lost when it came to his son's moods. When his baby cried, was that a sign of hunger or some deeper distress? Given all the strides that have been made to track and monitor human health, could Grue find a digital solution to this?

So Grue, a professor at the Department of Special Needs Education at University of Oslo, downloaded one of the many mobile apps that claim to provide new parents with insights into their infants' mood swings. Grue didn't say the specific app he used, but an internet search revealed apps like Wonder Week, which claim to leverage scientific research about infant development to keep parents informed about the "mental leaps and bounds of your baby."

But he soon discovered that his instincts and knowledge were often at odds with the information provided by the app. His own research confirmed his worries.

"Some of the earliest studies [on infant development] were carried out on baby chimpanzees," said Grue on stage at TEDxOslo in Norway this week, prompting a laugh from the audience. Grue discovered that many of these apps were reliant on such studies.

Moreover, for the app he used, the predicted developmental stages were laid out based on a single source of information: The child's due date. That got him wondering: Who knows his baby the best? "Is it an app that knows one thing about him and a few things about baby chimpanzees? Or us, his parents?"

This experience prompted Grue to think more deeply about the methods that app makers use to track human health. And the type of users they are looking to attract.

Investors are getting more interested in in mobile health, and venture funding reached a record $1.3 billion in 2016, according to the market research firm Mercom Capital Group.

Grue is in a wheelchair. For him, reaching 10,000 steps, the goal set out by many of the leading fitness trackers, would do him more harm than good. In his first months as a parent, he reached 3,000 steps, which resulted in a significant weight loss. "They don't make step-tracking apps for wheelchair users who can walk a little," he said. "My equilibrium lies at a different level."

Grue noted a correlation between the fitness tracking apps that are made for so-called average or "normal" adult users and those that are targeted for new parents who want to measure the development cycles of the "normal" infant.

"[Our son] might not be perfect or perfectly normal but he is himself," Grue concluded.