It’s a folk theorem I sometimes hear from colleagues and clients: that you must balance the class prevalence before training a classifier. Certainly, I believe that classification tends to be easier when the classes are nearly balanced, especially when the class you are actually interested in is the rarer one. But I have always been skeptical of the claim that artificially balancing the classes (through resampling, for instance) always helps, when the model is to be run on a population with the native class prevalences.
On the other hand, there are situations where balancing the classes, or at least enriching the prevalence of the rarer class, might be necessary, if not desirable. Fraud detection, anomaly detection, or other situations where positive examples are hard to get, can fall into this case. In this situation, I’ve suspected (without proof) that SVM would perform well, since the formulation of hard-margin SVM is pretty much distribution-free. Intuitively speaking, if both classes are far away from the margin, then it shouldn’t matter whether the rare class is 10% or 49% of the population. In the soft-margin case, of course, distribution starts to matter again, but perhaps not as strongly as with other classifiers like logistic regression, which explicitly encodes the distribution of the training data.
So let’s run a small experiment to investigate this question.
Continue reading Does Balancing Classes Improve Classifier Performance?
Win-Vector LLC’s Nina Zumel and John Mount are proud to announce their new data science video course Introduction to Data Science is now available on Udemy.
Continue reading Announcing: Introduction to Data Science video course
How sure are you that large margin implies low VC dimension (and good generalization error)? It is true. But even if you have taken a good course on machine learning you many have seen the actual proof (with all of the caveats and conditions). I worked through the literature proofs over the holiday and it took a lot of notes to track what is really going on in the derivation of the support vector machine.
Figure: the standard SVM margin diagram, this time with some un-marked data added.
Continue reading How sure are you that large margin implies low VC dimension?
Most data science projects are well served by a random test/train split. In our book Practical Data Science with R we strongly advise preparing data and including enough variables so that data is exchangeable, and scoring classifiers using a random test/train split.
With enough data and a big enough arsenal of methods, it’s relatively easy to find a classifier that looks good; the trick is finding one that is good. What many data science practitioners (and consumers) don’t seem to remember is that when evaluating a model, a random test/train split may not always be enough.
Continue reading Random Test/Train Split is not Always Enough
As John mentioned in his last post, we have been quite interested in the recent study by Fernandez-Delgado, et.al., “Do we Need Hundreds of Classifiers to Solve Real World Classification Problems?” (the “DWN study” for short), which evaluated 179 popular implementations of common classification algorithms over 120 or so data sets, mostly from the UCI Machine Learning Repository. For fun, we decided to do a follow-up study, using their data and several classifier implementations from
scikit-learn, the Python machine learning library. We were interested not just in classifier accuracy, but also in seeing if there is a “geometry” of classifiers: which classifiers produce predictions patterns that look similar to each other, and which classifiers produce predictions that are quite different? To examine these questions, we put together a Shiny app to interactively explore how the relative behavior of classifiers changes for different types of data sets.
Continue reading The Geometry of Classifiers
I have been working through (with some honest appreciation) a recent article comparing many classifiers on many data sets: “Do we Need Hundreds of Classifiers to Solve Real World Classification Problems?” Manuel Fernández-Delgado, Eva Cernadas, Senén Barro, Dinani Amorim; 15(Oct):3133−3181, 2014 (which we will call “the DWN paper” in this note). This paper applies 179 popular classifiers to around 120 data sets (mostly from the UCI Machine Learning Repository). The work looks good and interesting, but we do have one quibble with the data-prep on 8 of the 123 shared data sets. Given the paper is already out (not just in pre-print) I think it is appropriate to comment publicly. Continue reading A comment on preparing data for classifiers
Any practicing data scientist is going to eventually have to work with a data stored in a Microsoft
Excel spreadsheet. A lot of analysts use this format, so if you work with others you are going to run into it. We have already written how we don’t recommend using
Excel-like formats to exchange data. But we know if you are going to work with others you are going to have to make accommodations (we even built our own modified version of
Perl script to work around a bug).
But one thing that continues to confound us is how hard it is to read
Excel data correctly. When
Excel exports into
CSV/TSV style formats it uses fairly clever escaping rules about quotes and new-lines. Most
CSV/TSV readers fail to correctly implement these rules and often fail on fields that contain actual quote characters, separators (tab or comma), or new-lines. Another issue is
Excel itself often transforms data without any user verification or control. For example:
Excel routinely turns date-like strings into time since epoch (which it then renders as a date). We recently ran into another uncontrollable
Excel transform: changing the strings “
TRUE” and “
FALSE” into 1 and 0 inside the actual “
.xlsx” file. That is
Excel does not faithfully store the strings “
TRUE” and “
FALSE” even in its native format. Most
Excel users do not know about this, so they certainly are in no position to warn you about it.
This would be a mere annoyance, except it turns out
Libre Office (or at least LibreOffice_4.3.4_MacOS_x86-64) has a severe and silent data mangling bug on this surprising Microsoft boolean type.
We first ran into this in client data (and once the bug triggered it seemed to alter most of the columns), but it turns out the bug is very easy to trigger. In this note we will demonstrate the data representation issue and bug. Continue reading Excel spreadsheets are hard to get right
In most of our data science teaching (including our book Practical Data Science with R) we emphasize the deliberately easy problem of “exchangeable prediction.” We define exchangeable prediction as: given a series of observations with two distinguished classes of variables/observations denoted “x”s (denoting control variables, independent variables, experimental variables, or predictor variables) and “y” (denoting an outcome variable, or dependent variable) then:
- Estimate an approximate functional relation
y ~ f(x).
- Apply that relation to new instances where
x is known and
y is not yet known.
An example of this would be to use measured characteristics of online shoppers to predict if they will purchase in the next month. Data more than a month old gives us a training set where both
y are known. Newer shoppers give us examples where only
x is currently known and it would presumably be of some value to estimate
y or estimate the probability of different
y values. The problem is philosophically “easy” in the sense we are not attempting inference (estimating unknown parameters that are not later exposed to us) and we are not extrapolating (making predictions about situations that are out of the range of our training data). All we are doing is essentially generalizing memorization: if somebody who shares characteristics of recent buyers shows up, predict they are likely to buy. We repeat: we are not forecasting or “predicting the future” as we are not modeling how many high-value prospects will show up, just assigning scores to the prospects that do show up.
The reliability of such a scheme rests on the concept of exchangeability. If the future individuals we are asked to score are exchangeable with those we had access to during model construction then we expect to be able to make useful predictions. How we construct the model (and how to ensure we indeed find a good one) is the core of machine learning. We can bring in any big name machine learning method (deep learning, support vector machines, random forests, decision trees, regression, nearest neighbors, conditional random fields, and so-on) but the legitimacy of the technique pretty much stands on some variation of the idea of exchangeability.
One effect antithetical to exchangeability is “concept drift.” Concept drift is when the meanings and distributions of variables or relations between variables changes over time. Concept drift is a killer: if the relations available to you during training are thought not to hold during later application then you should not expect to build a useful model. This one of the hard lessons that statistics tries so hard to quantify and teach.
We know that you should always prefer fixing your experimental design over trying a mechanical correction (which can go wrong). And there are no doubt “name brand” procedures for dealing with concept drift. However, data science and machine learning practitioners are at heart tinkerers. We ask: can we (to a limited extent) attempt to directly correct for concept drift? This article demonstrates a simple correction applied to a deliberately simple artificial example.
Image: Wikipedia: Elgin watchmaker
Continue reading Can we try to make an adjustment?
Win-Vector LLC‘s John Mount will be speaking at Strata + Hadoop World 2014 this month. Please attend my panel on data inventories (a key driver of data science project success) and attend my “Practical Data Science with R” book office hour (get your book signed!). Thank you both O’Reilly Media, Inc. and Waterline Data Science for making this possible.
Current schedule/location details after the click. Continue reading Win-Vector LLC’s John Mount at Strata + Hadoop World October 2014
What is the Gauss-Markov theorem?
From “The Cambridge Dictionary of Statistics” B. S. Everitt, 2nd Edition:
A theorem that proves that if the error terms in a multiple regression have the same variance and are uncorrelated, then the estimators of the parameters in the model produced by least squares estimation are better (in the sense of having lower dispersion about the mean) than any other unbiased linear estimator.
This is pretty much considered the “big boy” reason least squares fitting can be considered a good implementation of linear regression.
Suppose you are building a model of the form:
y(i) = B . x(i) + e(i)
B is a vector (to be inferred),
i is an index that runs over the available data (say
x(i) is a per-example vector of features, and
y(i) is the scalar quantity to be modeled. Only
y(i) are observed. The
e(i) term is the un-modeled component of
y(i) and you typically hope that the
e(i) can be thought of unknowable effects, individual variation, ignorable errors, residuals, or noise. How weak/strong assumptions you put on the
e(i) (and other quantities) depends on what you know, what you are trying to do, and which theorems you need to meet the pre-conditions of. The Gauss-Markov theorem assures a good estimate of
B under weak assumptions.
How to interpret the theorem
The point of the Gauss-Markov theorem is that we can find conditions ensuring a good fit without requiring detailed distributional assumptions about the
e(i) and without distributional assumptions about the
x(i). However, if you are using Bayesian methods or generative models for predictions you may want to use additional stronger conditions (perhaps even normality of errors and even distributional assumptions on the
We are going to read through the Wikipedia statement of the Gauss-Markov theorem in detail.
Continue reading Reading the Gauss-Markov theorem