How a new color scale for scientific models could improve healthcare  

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy laboratory developed a two-tone color scale for charts graphs and other types of models mathematically attuned to both colorblind and noncolorblind people, which may allow for more accurate healthcare diagnoses, according to a study published in Plos One

Map and graph makers across multiple scientific disciplines have long relied on the rainbow color scheme to visually represent data, but a growing number of scientists suggest the Roy G. Biv scale often confuses its readers and proves unreadable for people who are color blind.

"People like to use the rainbow because it catches the eye," lead author Jamie Nuñez, chemical and biological data analyst at Benton, Wash.-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told Scientific American.

Yet, our brains are wired to interpret differences in brightness as representing depth. That is the reason gray scales are often used for topography, where the lowest of the scale is black and increases in lighter grays until the peak of the graph hits white. But in the rainbow scale, yellow is the lightest color and often makes peaks appear on a map or graph when yellow is meant to represent the middle of a scale.

"If you give people the colors, red, blue, green and yellow, the will not know which order to put them in," Colin Ware, human perception and data visualization expert at N.H.-based University of New Hampshire, told Scientific American.

To tackle this problem, Ms. Nuñez and Ryan Renslow, PhD, chemical engineer at PNNL, used software based on a mathematical model of human vision to create a new color scale called cividis. The scale features only two colors — blue and yellow — along with a clear brightness gradient. The scale is colorblind-friendly and eliminates the opportunity for individuals to misinterpret data based on differences in perceived color hues.

In 2011, researchers at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University found when the traditional rainbow color scheme of a 3D computer model of arteries was switched to a 2D model, which used a red-to-black color scale, physician's accuracy in diagnosing heart disease went from 39 percent to 91 percent.

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