/ Data Science

Evaluating image segmentation models.

When evaluating a standard machine learning model, we usually classify our predictions into four categories: true positives, false positives, true negatives, and false negatives. However, for the dense prediction task of image segmentation, it's not immediately clear what counts as a "true positive" and, more generally, how we can evaluate our predictions. In this post, I'll discuss common methods for evaluating both semantic and instance segmentation techniques.

Semantic segmentation

Recall that the task of semantic segmentation is simply to predict the class of each pixel in an image.

Image credit

Our prediction output shape matches the input's spatial resolution (width and height) with a channel depth equivalent to the number of possible classes to be predicted. Each channel consists of a binary mask which labels areas where a specific class is present.

Intersection over Union

The Intersection over Union (IoU) metric, also referred to as the Jaccard index, is essentially a method to quantify the percent overlap between the target mask and our prediction output. This metric is closely related to the Dice coefficient which is often used as a loss function during training.

Quite simply, the IoU metric measures the number of pixels common between the target and prediction masks divided by the total number of pixels present across both masks.

$$ IoU = \frac{{target \cap prediction}}{{target \cup prediction}} $$

As a visual example, let's suppose we're tasked with calculating the IoU score of the following prediction, given the ground truth labeled mask.


The intersection ($A \cap B$) is comprised of the pixels found in both the prediction mask and the ground truth mask, whereas the union ($A \cup B$) is simply comprised of all pixels found in either the prediction or target mask.


We can calculate this easily using Numpy.

intersection = np.logical_and(target, prediction)
union = np.logical_or(target, prediction)
iou_score = np.sum(intersection) / np.sum(union)

The IoU score is calculated for each class separately and then averaged over all classes to provide a global, mean IoU score of our semantic segmentation prediction.

Pixel Accuracy

An alternative metric to evaluate a semantic segmentation is to simply report the percent of pixels in the image which were correctly classified. The pixel accuracy is commonly reported for each class separately as well as globally across all classes.

When considering the per-class pixel accuracy we're essentially evaluating a binary mask; a true positive represents a pixel that is correctly predicted to belong to the given class (according to the target mask) whereas a true negative represents a pixel that is correctly identified as not belonging to the given class.

$$ accuracy = \frac{{TP + TN}}{{TP + TN + FP + FN}} $$

This metric can sometimes provide misleading results when the class representation is small within the image, as the measure will be biased in mainly reporting how well you identify negative case (ie. where the class is not present).

Instance segmentation

Instance segmentation models are a little more complicated to evaluate; whereas semantic segmentation models produce a single output segmentation mask, instance segmentation models produce a collection of local segmentation masks describing each object detected in the image.

Image credit

Average Precision

To evaluate our collection of predicted masks, we'll compare each of our predicted masks with each of the available target masks for a given input.

  • A true positive is observed when a prediction-target mask pair has an IoU score which exceeds some predefined threshold.

  • A false positive indicates a predicted object mask had no associated ground truth object mask.

  • A false negative indicates a ground truth object mask had no associated predicted object mask.


When evaluating a collection of prediction masks, we'll calculate the IoU score between each prediction-target mask pair and then determine which mask pairs have an IoU score exceeding the defined threshold value.


For a given threshold $t$, precision may be defined as:

$$ Precision = \frac{{TP\left( t \right)}}{{TP\left( t \right) + FP\left( t \right) + FN\left( t \right)}} $$

Ultimately, we'd like for our predicted masks to have a high IoU with the ground truth masks. However, we don't want to set a threshold excessively high such that we don't consider predictions which were close but not perfect matches. One way to overcome this is to average the precision score over a range of defined thresholds.

$$ \frac{1}{{\left| {thresholds} \right|}}\sum\limits_t {\frac{{TP\left( t \right)}}{{TP\left( t \right) + FP\left( t \right) + FN\left( t \right)}}} $$

As an example, the Microsoft COCO challenge's primary metric for the detection task evaluates the average precision score using IoU thresholds ranging from 0.5 to 0.95 (in 0.05 increments).


For prediction problems with multiple classes of objects, this value is then averaged over all of the classes.

$$ \frac{1}{{\left| {classes} \right|}}\sum\limits_c {\left( {\frac{1}{{\left| {thresholds} \right|}}\sum\limits_t {\frac{{TP\left( t \right)}}{{TP\left( t \right) + FP\left( t \right) + FN\left( t \right)}}} } \right)} $$