More Shiny user showcase demonstrations

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We at Win-Vector LLC are very proud to announce that RStudio just inducted two more of our demonstration Shiny applications into their Shiny User Showcase gallery. Continue reading More Shiny user showcase demonstrations

Finding the K in K-means by Parametric Bootstrap

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One of the trickier tasks in clustering is determining the appropriate number of clusters. Domain-specific knowledge is always best, when you have it, but there are a number of heuristics for getting at the likely number of clusters in your data. We cover a few of them in Chapter 8 (available as a free sample chapter) of our book Practical Data Science with R.

We also came upon another cool approach, in the mixtools package for mixture model analysis. As with clustering, if you want to fit a mixture model (say, a mixture of gaussians) to your data, it helps to know how many components are in your mixture. The boot.comp function estimates the number of components (let’s call it k) by incrementally testing the hypothesis that there are k+1 components against the null hypothesis that there are k components, via parametric bootstrap.

You can use a similar idea to estimate the number of clusters in a clustering problem, if you make a few assumptions about the shape of the clusters. This approach is only heuristic, and more ad-hoc in the clustering situation than it is in mixture modeling. Still, it’s another approach to add to your toolkit, and estimating the number of clusters via a variety of different heuristics isn’t a bad idea.

Continue reading Finding the K in K-means by Parametric Bootstrap

Neglected optimization topic: set diversity

Posted on Categories Applications, data science, Expository Writing, Opinion, Practical Data Science, Pragmatic Data Science, Pragmatic Machine Learning, Statistics, TutorialsTags , , , , , 2 Comments on Neglected optimization topic: set diversity

The mathematical concept of set diversity is a somewhat neglected topic in current applied decision sciences and optimization. We take this opportunity to discuss the issue.

The problem

Consider the following problem: for a number of items U = {x_1, … x_n} pick a small set of them X = {x_i1, x_i2, ..., x_ik} such that there is a high probability one of the x in X is a “success.” By success I mean some standard business outcome such as making a sale (in the sense of any of: propensity, appetency, up selling, and uplift modeling), clicking an advertisement, adding an account, finding a new medicine, or learning something useful.

This is common in:

  • Search engines. The user is presented with a page consisting of “top results” with the hope that one of the results is what the user wanted.
  • Online advertising. The user is presented with a number of advertisements in enticements in the hope that one of them matches user taste.
  • Science. A number of molecules are simultaneously presented to biological assay hoping that at least one of them is a new drug candidate, or that the simultaneous set of measurements shows us where to experiment further.
  • Sensor/guard placement. Overlapping areas of coverage don’t make up for uncovered areas.
  • Machine learning method design. The random forest algorithm requires diversity among its sub-trees to work well. It tries to ensure by both per-tree variable selections and re-sampling (some of these issues discussed here).

In this note we will touch on key applications and some of the theory involved. While our group specializes in practical data science implementations, applications, and training, our researchers experience great joy when they can re-formulate a common problem using known theory/math and the reformulation is game changing (as it is in the case of set-scoring).


Minimal spanning trees, the basis of one set diversity metric.

Continue reading Neglected optimization topic: set diversity

Using PostgreSQL in R: A quick how-to

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The combination of R plus SQL offers an attractive way to work with what we call medium-scale data: data that’s perhaps too large to gracefully work with in its entirety within your favorite desktop analysis tool (whether that be R or Excel), but too small to justify the overhead of big data infrastructure. In some cases you can use a serverless SQL database that gives you the power of SQL for data manipulation, while maintaining a lightweight infrastructure.

We call this work pattern “SQL Screwdriver”: delegating data handling to a lightweight infrastructure with the power of SQL for data manipulation.

NewImageImage: Iainf, some rights reserved.

We assume for this how-to that you already have a PostgreSQL database up and running. To get PostgreSQL for Windows, OSX, or Unix use the instructions at PostgreSQL downloads. If you happen to be on a Mac, then provides a “serverless” (or application oriented) install option.

For the rest of this post, we give a quick how-to on using the RpostgreSQL package to interact with Postgres databases in R.

Continue reading Using PostgreSQL in R: A quick how-to

A gentle introduction to parallel computing in R

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Let’s talk about the use and benefits of parallel computation in R.


IBM’s Blue Gene/P massively parallel supercomputer (Wikipedia).

Parallel computing is a type of computation in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously.”

Wikipedia quoting: Gottlieb, Allan; Almasi, George S. (1989). Highly parallel computing

The reason we care is: by making the computer work harder (perform many calculations simultaneously) we wait less time for our experiments and can run more experiments. This is especially important when doing data science (as we often do using the R analysis platform) as we often need to repeat variations of large analyses to learn things, infer parameters, and estimate model stability.

Typically to get the computer to work a harder the analyst, programmer, or library designer must themselves work a bit hard to arrange calculations in a parallel friendly manner. In the best circumstances somebody has already done this for you:

  • Good parallel libraries, such as the multi-threaded BLAS/LAPACK libraries included in Revolution R Open (RRO, now Microsoft R Open) (see here).
  • Specialized parallel extensions that supply their own high performance implementations of important procedures such as rx methods from RevoScaleR or h2o methods from
  • Parallelization abstraction frameworks such as Thrust/Rth (see here).
  • Using R application libraries that dealt with parallelism on their own (examples include gbm, boot and our own vtreat). (Some of these libraries do not attempt parallel operation until you specify a parallel execution environment.)

In addition to having a task ready to “parallelize” you need a facility willing to work on it in a parallel manner. Examples include:

  • Your own machine. Even a laptop computer usually now has four our more cores. Potentially running four times faster, or equivalently waiting only one fourth the time, is big.
  • Graphics processing units (GPUs). Many machines have a one or more powerful graphics cards already installed. For some numerical task these cards are 10 to 100 times faster than the basic Central Processing Unit (CPU) you normally use for computation (see here).
  • Clusters of computers (such as Amazon ec2, Hadoop backends and more).

Obviously parallel computation with R is a vast and specialized topic. It can seem impossible to quickly learn how to use all this magic to run your own calculation more quickly.

In this tutorial we will demonstrate how to speed up a calculation of your own choosing using basic R. Continue reading A gentle introduction to parallel computing in R

Free gradient boosting lecture

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We have always regretted that we didn’t get to cover gradient boosting in Practical Data Science with R (Manning 2014). To try make up for that we are sharing (for free) our GBM lecture from our (paid) video course Introduction to Data Science.

(link, all support material here).

Please help us get the word out by sharing/Tweeting!

Fluid use of data

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Nina Zumel and I recently wrote a few article and series on best practices in testing models and data:

What stands out in these presentations is: the simple practice of a static test/train split is merely a convenience to cut down on operational complexity and difficulty of teaching. It is in no way optimal. That is, using slightly more complicated procedures can build better models on a given set of data.

Suggested static cal/train/test experiment design from vtreat data treatment library.
Continue reading Fluid use of data

Upcoming Win-Vector Appearances

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We have two public appearances coming up in the next few weeks:

Workshop at ODSC, San Francisco – November 14

Both of us will be giving a two-hour workshop called Preparing Data for Analysis using R: Basic through Advanced Techniques. We will cover key issues in this important but often neglected aspect of data science, what can go wrong, and how to fix it. This is part of the Open Data Science Conference (ODSC) at the Marriot Waterfront in Burlingame, California, November 14-15. If you are attending this conference, we look forward to seeing you there!

You can find an abstract for the workshop, along with links to software and code you can download ahead of time, here.

An Introduction to Differential Privacy as Applied to Machine Learning: Women in ML/DS – December 2

I (Nina) will give a talk to the Bay Area Women in Machine Learning & Data Science Meetup group, on applying differential privacy for reusable hold-out sets in machine learning. The talk will also cover the use of differential privacy in effects coding (what we’ve been calling “impact coding”) to reduce the bias that can arise from the use of nested models. Information about the talk, and the meetup group, can be found here.

We’re looking forward to these upcoming appearances, and we hope you can make one or both of them.

Our Differential Privacy Mini-series

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We’ve just finished off a series of articles on some recent research results applying differential privacy to improve machine learning. Some of these results are pretty technical, so we thought it was worth working through concrete examples. And some of the original results are locked behind academic journal paywalls, so we’ve tried to touch on the highlights of the papers, and to play around with variations of our own.

Blurry snowflakes stock by cosmicgallifrey d3inho1

  • A Simpler Explanation of Differential Privacy: Quick explanation of epsilon-differential privacy, and an introduction to an algorithm for safely reusing holdout data, recently published in Science (Cynthia Dwork, Vitaly Feldman, Moritz Hardt, Toniann Pitassi, Omer Reingold, Aaron Roth, “The reusable holdout: Preserving validity in adaptive data analysis”, Science, vol 349, no. 6248, pp. 636-638, August 2015).

    Note that Cynthia Dwork is one of the inventors of differential privacy, originally used in the analysis of sensitive information.

  • Using differential privacy to reuse training data: Specifically, how differential privacy helps you build efficient encodings of categorical variables with many levels from your training data without introducing undue bias into downstream modeling.
  • A simple differentially private-ish procedure: The bootstrap as an alternative to Laplace noise to introduce privacy.

Our R code and experiments are available on Github here, so you can try some experiments and variations yourself.

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Don’t use stats::aggregate()

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When working with an analysis system (such as R) there are usually good reasons to prefer using functions from the “base” system over using functions from extension packages. However, base functions are sometimes locked into unfortunate design compromises that can now be avoided. In R’s case I would say: do not use stats::aggregate().

Read on for our example. Continue reading Don’t use stats::aggregate()