Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., think they’ve come up with a way to help scientists and students with one of the countries most widespread and yet overlooked disabilities deal with visual data in scientific and other reports.
In a study published at PLOS One, they suggest doing away with rainbow-color schemes impossible to decipher for almost one in 10 men and replacing them with a yellow-blue color palette visible even to those with what the scientists call “color vision deficiency (CVD),”or what is more commonly known as color blindness.
Complete color blindness is rare, according to the National Eye Institute, but about 8 percent of men suffer from red-green color blindness, and there is no cure. Color blindness made the news during the World Cup soccer matches in July when Twitter lit up with angry Tweets from color-blind soccer fans unable to tell the red team from the green team.
“Roars of frustration jumped from sitting rooms to social media as fans worldwide branded Russia v Saudi Arabia ‘a disgrace,'” the BBC reported. “A massive 320 million people worldwide are colour-blind. Statistically, the condition affects one player in every men’s football team. And with almost half the planet projected to watch the World Cup, many are furious that its organiser Fifa has failed to take account of what they can and can’t see.”
The BBC website even provided a doctored photo of the match to show color-sighted soccer fans the lookalike nature of the uniforms seen by color-blind fans.
But the problems associated with visuals unreadable by the colorblind go far beyond sports. Scientists at Harvard University years ago discovered that a blood flow test used to detect atherosclerosis and heart disease was seriously flawed due to its rainbow-colored portrayal of blood flow.
When scientists took fancy, 3D models with multi-colored displays and converted them to 2D models with a red-to-black, graded color-scheme, they discovered diagnostic accuracy improved from 39 percent to 91 percent.
“What we found is that the prettiest, most popular visualization is not always the most effective,” Michelle Borkin, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, told Phys.org.
No laughing matter
The color blind, of course, largely know their disability as a frustration or party entertainment. When people find out someone is color blind, they too often want to a play a stupid, little guessing game of “What color is this? What color is that? Or what color does this look like to you?”
That color blindness could cause real problems has never trickled down to the majority of society.
The Pacific Northwest scientists noted that though color blindness has been a well-known disability “for decades, colormaps with many colors across the visual spectra are often used to represent data, leading to the potential for misinterpretation or difficulty with interpretation by someone with this deficiency. ”
The misinterpretation problem is real and has to do with more than just colormaps. Ask any driver who has to pay extra attention because red lights on street corners don’t pop out the way they do for the non-colorblind, or any mariner who has tried to navigate home by the use of red and green navigation lights at night.
Licensed mariners are required to be able to see red, green, blue and yellow. Changing the global navigation system to assist the color blind would be costly and time-consuming, but the Northwest lab scientists say they’ve found an easy fix for the red-green-blue-yellow color scheme that can confuse so many readers of scientific literature or other studies.
They have developed a colormap scheme that not only works for the color blind but is functional for everyone. They are offering the computer code for the program to other scientists.
“While it may take some time for the full scientific community to both be aware of the need to choose appropriate colormaps and agree on preferred colormaps,” they write, “we hope the code we provide here can help with this transition by allowing others to experiment with the different aspects of colormap design and see how the various characteristics of a colormap affect its interpretation.”
The scientists concede, however, the difficulties of bringing about change.
The full palette of colors “is more aesthetically pleasing to some and covers more colors for those with normal vision, allowing greater visual perception sensitivity,” they write.
As a result, they report they are continuing to pursue more “aesthetically pleasing colormaps, that are perpetually linear for all people. (But) it is not clear yet if this task is possible….”
“We hope to reduce the number of non-perceptually uniform and rainbow-style colormaps being used as default in scientific data analysis software, and to increase the availability of CVD-friendly colormaps so the estimated more than 600 million individuals worldwide with CVD can interpret and perceive data like the rest of the population,” the wrote.
There is little real incentive for change. Color blindness is not among the dozens of disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated wheelchair access for commercial and government buildings across the U.S. and knocked down many other everyday barriers to those with disabilities.
An Iowa science consultant has labeled color blindness the “invisible disability.”
“In the current age of educational enlightenment, in which students with forms of recognized disabilities have gained legal access to science classrooms and activities in unprecedented numbers,” writes John Stiles , “students with optical dyschromacy, or ‘color blindness,’ still struggle with a genetic disorder that most people do not comprehend.”
Editor’s note: The author of this story is color blind, but does not consider it a major disability. He does get tired of the stupid questions as to what colors he sees.