Postgraduate Lives: Luke Jefferson, PhD student at the University of East Anglia

Website help for the colour-blind
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The Independent Online

Luke Jefferson, 25, is undertaking a PhD on how colour-blind computer users are able to access the internet, at the University of East Anglia

I'm a computer science student and my PhD is all about developing new technology to help people who are colour-blind to use sites on the internet. One in 12 men in the UK are colour blind, yet many websites use colour combinations that make it very difficult for such people to see and understand.

There are various types of colour blindness, but it basically means the inability to distinguish between certain colours, usually red and green. When web designers choose colours - for example for text or for a background - and they don't understand colour blindness then what they produce can be illegible.

I initially got the idea while doing my undergraduate degree. I worked as a web developer and we had a client who wanted a new corporate identity with all the literature colour blind friendly. Later, while working on my final year research project (which was on another topic), I decided I wanted to do a PhD. I liked the self-study aspect of research and I saw a PhD as a personal challenge. Initially I went to Lancaster, but because of meningitis and various other things, I left. I then re-applied to UEA in 2002.

The first year was problematic, but I entered a business plan competition and won. UEA then entered me for an enterprise development award from i10, a partnership of 10 universities and higher education colleges in the East of England. I won the award and the £10,000 bursary. This meant I could take a year out from my studies and develop my idea about accessibility solutions for colour blind computer users. It was an opportunity to start again and get back on track.

Today, I spend most of my time in the lab developing software. What I'm trying to do is to correct colours, to substitute them for better ones. The end result will be an algorithm (a set of instructions) that corrects the colours. The software could be used as a plug-in to a colour-blind person's computer to adjust the colours according to their type of colour blindness.

As a result of the i10 award and local press coverage around 40 people have contacted me interested in helping my research. I now need to validate what I've done so far. It's one thing to develop an algorithm, another to try it out. There are many variables that can affect the quality of the solutions I'm trying to come up with, for example in a bright room colours can look different, and subtle variations in monitors can make colours appear different.

I now have funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and have won a number of competitions. I'm more of an entrepreneur now. I'd always been torn between business and technology and if I wasn't doing a PhD then I'd probably be a programmer. I was offered a job as a programmer but I wasn't ready to work in industry, I wanted a personal challenge.

caitlind1@aol.com

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