Many visualization projects use colour schemes to help viewers visually understand and distinguish complex data sets and information. But have you ever thought about the fact that people who are visually impaired have trouble viewing them? How could you read and appreciate a map that is not readable? Possibly as much as trying to read a map in a language you don’t speak. Now there is an app to help people with colour blindness and other visual impairments to better read the London Tube map called Colourblind Tube Map.
Ian Hamilton, founder of the app and advocate for the visually impaired in the gaming industry, came up with the idea last year. He was conscious of the problem and knew the complaints of colourblind Tube travellers in London. It inspired him and his partner to explore the project further.
Link to interactive visualisation (full screen): http://goo.gl/CD6Taa
According to US statistics on the issue of colour blindness, and annual travel statistics for the London subway (Tube) by the Transport for London (TFL), there may be nearly 300,000 people traveling on the Tube with some sort of colour deficiency every day. These people might encounter huge problems in reading the Tube map. London also attracts a lot of visitors and tourists, who are dependent on the readability of the Tube map.
New Tech to Help the Visually Impaired
“If you want to help people with their visual impairment, it’s key not to design for their specific impairments. Don’t design for the condition itself. It’s better to create solutions and design for people who have that impairment,” says app creator Hamilton in an interview with nuviun. What he means, for example, is that mild visual impairment may come with a certain age, and may also be accompanied by other comorbidities such as mild-moderate motor and cognitive impairment. If you solve only the needs of one condition, the solution you create most likely will not generate the best possible user experience for the maximum number of people.
Don’t design for the condition … design for people who have that impairment.” Ian Hamilton
The app allows users to select different modes, specifically relevant for their visual impairment issues.
Source: Colourblind Tube Map
Transport for London (TFL) already offers a black-and-white map, Hamilton explains. But this isn’t enough. “It is important to understand that colour blindness doesn’t mean that the ones who suffer from it can’t see all the colour. Only certain colours are invisible. Which colours depend on the specific condition. Using colour in maps therefore still enhances readability and sometimes acts as an essential aid. But you need to know how to apply it,” says Hamilton.
For this reason he used commonly known principles from scientific research. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Hamilton says. “We applied them to the London Tube map. But this was not as easy as it sounds. To just do anything with the London Tube Map you need to buy an expensive license. We didn’t have the funds for that.”
However, last year, Hamilton’s partner randomly met Boris Johnson, the London mayor. He explained to him how the app works and why it is invaluable for the city’s colourblind locals and tourists. After further discussion, the mayor was passionately supportive and immediately connected him to someone who could help. Hamilton said that the new connection eventually made it possible to wave the license fee for development, which made it affordable to proceed and finalize.
“After long licensing negotiations we were able to modify the map. A new map design was created with new colour and pattern for the visually impaired. We also avoided confusion between lines, allowing quick recognition via colour schemes, and included colours that can be seen”.
Consider it. It’s a simple but quite powerful health technology concept the founders created. The design principles of the Colourblind Tube Map can literally be applied to any other subway or train map. Even further than that, any visualization can benefit from it with the knowledge of the founders. The concept can be exported to any other online or offline visualization. “I actually would be very happy if our principles would be copied and implemented for other maps,” says Hamilton.
With its clear literal iconography and no reliance on complex multi-touch gestures, he and his partner won the category “best tourism app” and “best small studio” at the Design100 app awards and were also awarded the TFL’s accessible app award.
How to Build Better Visualizations and Maps
US Statistics suggest that among populations with Northern European ancestry, color vision deficiency occurs in about 1 in 12 males and 1 in 200 females. Whereby around 8% of men are affected, only 0.4% of women have a colour deficiency. Hamilton knows that data visualizations can be difficult for the visually impaired to use, and if individuals are reliant on getting directions from an unreadable map, it becomes a huge problem. “Almost every complaint I see about unusable maps comes from those that are communicating a single range of data, but use two colours to do it—which almost always means a red to green ramp, which is of no use if you can't distinguish red from green,” he says. A typical example (graphic below) using red and green as indicators for strong and weak will be viewed completely as grey. Cynthia A. Brewer, professor of Geography at Penn State, says that simply avoiding the juxtaposition of red and green isn’t enough to address the issue of colourblindness.
“In contrast, using orange-blue is a much safer set of colors to use. Maps using it are completely visible for all three of the most common types of colorblindness,” says Hamilton.
For anybody who designs, there's an excellent free tool called colororacle.org, which Hamilton recommends using to test designs for colourblind friendliness.
Designing Maps for the Visually Impaired: Comparing Experiences
Hamilton is also active in the video gaming industry. He applies his design knowledge to help video game creators keep the needs of the visually impaired in mind, and says there is still a lot of work to be done. An industry (entertainment and media market) with a global market value to be expected to grow to $2.3tn in 2018 (according to statista.com), it can hardly afford to not acknowledge the needs of a 12th of its user base.
In a world where everyone should be treated equally, health innovation concepts like Colourblind Tube Maps can really impact large populations. It also shows that health technology doesn’t need to be hugely complex or high tech, and that little improvements can have a big impact.
More Eye-Care Tech Innovation Expected
The startup space of eye-care focused health innovation is growing too. Last year, a new startup accelerator launched in Berlin, called EyeFocus Accelerator. TechCrunch reported that the accelerator claims to be world’s first accelerator focused on eye-care. Unlike other startup accelerators that do not even limit themselves to one industry (e.g. Techstars), this one exclusively concentrates on tech innovation for the human eye. This is good news. It means that innovation projects like Hamilton’s can be helped in order to bring innovation faster to the people.