Learning How to Classify with Real-world Examples

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The Iris dataset

The Iris dataset is a classic dataset from the 1930s; it is one of the first modern examples of statistical classification.

The setting is that of Iris flowers, of which there are multiple species that can be identified by their morphology. Today, the species would be defined by their genomic signatures, but in the 1930s, DNA had not even been identified as the carrier of genetic information.

The following four attributes of each plant were measured:

  • Sepal length
  • Sepal width
  • Petal length
  • Petal width

In general, we will call any measurement from our data as features.

Additionally, for each plant, the species was recorded. The question now is: if we saw a new flower out in the field, could we make a good prediction about its species from its measurements?

This is the supervised learning or classification problem; given labeled examples, we can design a rule that will eventually be applied to other examples. This is the same setting that is used for spam classification; given the examples of spam and ham (non-spam e-mail) that the user gave the system, can we determine whether a new, incoming message is spam or not?

For the moment, the Iris dataset serves our purposes well. It is small (150 examples, 4 features each) and can easily be visualized and manipulated.

The first step is visualization

Because this dataset is so small, we can easily plot all of the points and all two-dimensional projections on a page. We will thus build intuitions that can then be extended to datasets with many more dimensions and datapoints. Each subplot in the following screenshot shows all the points projected into two of the dimensions. The outlying group (triangles) are the Iris Setosa plants, while Iris Versicolor plants are in the center (circle) and Iris Virginica are indicated with “x” marks. We can see that there are two large groups: one is of Iris Setosa and another is a mixture of Iris Versicolor and Iris Virginica.

We are using Matplotlib; it is the most well-known plotting package for Python. We present the code to generate the top-left plot. The code for the other plots is similar to the following code:

from matplotlib import pyplot as plt from sklearn.datasets import load_iris import numpy as np # We load the data with load_iris from sklearn data = load_iris() features = data['data'] feature_names = data['feature_names'] target = data['target'] for t,marker,c in zip(xrange(3),">ox","rgb"): # We plot each class on its own to get different colored markers plt.scatter(features[target == t,0], features[target == t,1], marker=marker, c=c)

Building our first classification model

If the goal is to separate the three types of flower, we can immediately make a few suggestions. For example, the petal length seems to be able to separate Iris Setosa from the other two flower species on its own. We can write a little bit of code to discover where the cutoff is as follows:

plength = features[:, 2] # use numpy operations to get setosa features is_setosa = (labels == 'setosa') # This is the important step: max_setosa =plength[is_setosa].max() min_non_setosa = plength[~is_setosa].min() print('Maximum of setosa: {0}.'.format(max_setosa)) print('Minimum of others: {0}.'.format(min_non_setosa))

This prints 1.9 and 3.0. Therefore, we can build a simple model: if the petal length is smaller than two, this is an Iris Setosa flower; otherwise, it is either Iris Virginica or Iris Versicolor.

if features[:,2] < 2: print 'Iris Setosa' else: print 'Iris Virginica or Iris Versicolour'

This is our first model, and it works very well in that it separates the Iris Setosa flowers from the other two species without making any mistakes.

What we had here was a simple structure; a simple threshold on one of the dimensions. Then we searched for the best dimension threshold. We performed this visually and with some calculation; machine learning happens when we write code to perform this for us.

The example where we distinguished Iris Setosa from the other two species was very easy. However, we cannot immediately see what the best threshold is for distinguishing Iris Virginica from Iris Versicolor. We can even see that we will never achieve perfect separation. We can, however, try to do it the best possible way. For this, we will perform a little computation.

We first select only the non-Setosa features and labels:

features = features[~is_setosa] labels = labels[~is_setosa] virginica = (labels == 'virginica')

Here we are heavily using NumPy operations on the arrays. is_setosa is a Boolean array, and we use it to select a subset of the other two arrays, features and labels. Finally, we build a new Boolean array, virginica, using an equality comparison on labels.

Now, we run a loop over all possible features and thresholds to see which one results in better accuracy. Accuracy is simply the fraction of examples that the model classifies correctly:

best_acc = -1.0 for fi in xrange(features.shape[1]): # We are going to generate all possible threshold for this feature thresh = features[:,fi].copy() thresh.sort() # Now test all thresholds: for t in thresh: pred = (features[:,fi] > t) acc = (pred == virginica).mean() if acc > best_acc: best_acc = acc best_fi = fi best_t = t

The last few lines select the best model. First we compare the predictions, pred, with the actual labels, virginica. The little trick of computing the mean of the comparisons gives us the fraction of correct results, the accuracy. At the end of the for loop, all possible thresholds for all possible features have been tested, and the best_fi and best_t variables hold our model. To apply it to a new example, we perform the following:

if example[best_fi] > t: print 'virginica' else: print 'versicolor'

What does this model look like? If we run it on the whole data, the best model that we get is split on the petal length. We can visualize the decision boundary. In the following screenshot, we see two regions: one is white and the other is shaded in grey. Anything that falls in the white region will be called Iris Virginica and anything that falls on the shaded side will be classified as Iris Versicolor:

In a threshold model, the decision boundary will always be a line that is parallel to one of the axes. The plot in the preceding screenshot shows the decision boundary and the two regions where the points are classified as either white or grey. It also shows (as a dashed line) an alternative threshold that will achieve exactly the same accuracy. Our method chose the first threshold, but that was an arbitrary choice.

Evaluation – holding out data and cross-validation

The model discussed in the preceding section is a simple model; it achieves 94 percent accuracy on its training data. However, this evaluation may be overly optimistic. We used the data to define what the threshold would be, and then we used the same data to evaluate the model. Of course, the model will perform better than anything else we have tried on this dataset. The logic is circular.

What we really want to do is estimate the ability of the model to generalize to new instances. We should measure its performance in instances that the algorithm has not seen at training. Therefore, we are going to do a more rigorous evaluation and use held-out data. For this, we are going to break up the data into two blocks: on one block, we’ll train the model, and on the other—the one we held out of training—we’ll test it. The output is as follows:

Training error was 96.0%. Testing error was 90.0% (N = 50).

The result of the testing data is lower than that of the training error. This may surprise an inexperienced machine learner, but it is expected and typical. To see why, look back at the plot that showed the decision boundary. See if some of the examples close to the boundary were not there or if one of the ones in between the two lines was missing. It is easy to imagine that the boundary would then move a little bit to the right or to the left so as to put them on the “wrong” side of the border.

The error on the training data is called a training error and is always an overly optimistic estimate of how well your algorithm is doing. We should always measure and report the testing error; the error on a collection of examples that were not used for training.

These concepts will become more and more important as the models become more complex. In this example, the difference between the two errors is not very large. When using a complex model, it is possible to get 100 percent accuracy in training and do no better than random guessing on testing!

One possible problem with what we did previously, which was to hold off data from training, is that we only used part of the data (in this case, we used half of it) for training. On the other hand, if we use too little data for testing, the error estimation is performed on a very small number of examples. Ideally, we would like to use all of the data for training and all of the data for testing as well.

We can achieve something quite similar by cross-validation. One extreme (but sometimes useful) form of cross-validation is leave-one-out. We will take an example out of the training data, learn a model without this example, and then see if the model classifies this example correctly:

error = 0.0 for ei in range(len(features)): # select all but the one at position 'ei': training = np.ones(len(features), bool) training[ei] = False testing = ~training model = learn_model(features[training], virginica[training]) predictions = apply_model(features[testing], virginica[testing], model) error += np.sum(predictions != virginica[testing])

At the end of this loop, we will have tested a series of models on all the examples. However, there is no circularity problem because each example was tested on a model that was built without taking the model into account. Therefore, the overall estimate is a reliable estimate of how well the models would generalize.

The major problem with leave-one-out cross-validation is that we are now being forced to perform 100 times more work. In fact, we must learn a whole new model for each and every example, and this will grow as our dataset grows.

We can get most of the benefits of leave-one-out at a fraction of the cost by using x-fold cross-validation; here, “x” stands for a small number, say, five. In order to perform five-fold cross-validation, we break up the data in five groups, that is, five folds.

Then we learn five models, leaving one fold out of each. The resulting code will be similar to the code given earlier in this section, but here we leave 20 percent of the data out instead of just one element. We test each of these models on the left out fold and average the results:

The preceding figure illustrates this process for five blocks; the dataset is split into five pieces. Then for each fold, you hold out one of the blocks for testing and train on the other four. You can use any number of folds you wish. Five or ten fold is typical; it corresponds to training with 80 or 90 percent of your data and should already be close to what you would get from using all the data. In an extreme case, if you have as many folds as datapoints, you can simply perform leave-one-out cross-validation.

When generating the folds, you need to be careful to keep them balanced. For example, if all of the examples in one fold come from the same class, the results will not be representative. We will not go into the details of how to do this because the machine learning packages will handle it for you.

We have now generated several models instead of just one. So, what final model do we return and use for the new data? The simplest solution is now to use a single overall model on all your training data. The cross-validation loop gives you an estimate of how well this model should generalize.

A cross-validation schedule allows you to use all your data to estimate if your methods are doing well. At the end of the cross-validation loop, you can use all your data to train a final model.

Although it was not properly recognized when machine learning was starting out, nowadays it is seen as a very bad sign to even discuss the training error of a classification system. This is because the results can be very misleading. We always want to measure and compare either the error on a held-out dataset or the error estimated using a cross-validation schedule.

Building more complex classifiers

In the previous section, we used a very simple model: a threshold on one of the dimensions. Throughout this article, you will see many other types of models, and we’re not even going to cover everything that is out there.

What makes up a classification model? We can break it up into three parts:

  • The structure of the model: In this, we use a threshold on a single feature.
  • The search procedure: In this, we try every possible combination of feature and threshold.
  • The loss function: Using the loss function, we decide which of the possibilities is less bad (because we can rarely talk about the perfect solution). We can use the training error or just define this point the other way around and say that we want the best accuracy. Traditionally, people want the loss function to be minimum.

We can play around with these parts to get different results. For example, we can attempt to build a threshold that achieves minimal training error, but we will only test three values for each feature: the mean value of the features, the mean plus one standard deviation, and the mean minus one standard deviation. This could make sense if testing each value was very costly in terms of computer time (or if we had millions and millions of datapoints). Then the exhaustive search we used would be infeasible, and we would have to perform an approximation like this.

Alternatively, we might have different loss functions. It might be that one type of error is much more costly than another. In a medical setting, false negatives and false positives are not equivalent. A false negative (when the result of a test comes back negative, but that is false) might lead to the patient not receiving treatment for a serious disease. A false positive (when the test comes back positive even though the patient does not actually have that disease) might lead to additional tests for confirmation purposes or unnecessary treatment (which can still have costs, including side effects from the treatment). Therefore, depending on the exact setting, different trade-offs can make sense. At one extreme, if the disease is fatal and treatment is cheap with very few negative side effects, you want to minimize the false negatives as much as you can. With spam filtering, we may face the same problem; incorrectly deleting a non-spam e-mail can be very dangerous for the user, while letting a spam e-mail through is just a minor annoyance.

What the cost function should be is always dependent on the exact problem you are working on. When we present a general-purpose algorithm, we often focus on minimizing the number of mistakes (achieving the highest accuracy). However, if some mistakes are more costly than others, it might be better to accept a lower overall accuracy to minimize overall costs.

Finally, we can also have other classification structures. A simple threshold rule is very limiting and will only work in the very simplest cases, such as with the Iris dataset.

A more complex dataset and a more complex classifier

We will now look at a slightly more complex dataset. This will motivate the introduction of a new classification algorithm and a few other ideas.

Learning about the Seeds dataset

We will now look at another agricultural dataset; it is still small, but now too big to comfortably plot exhaustively as we did with Iris. This is a dataset of the measurements of wheat seeds. Seven features are present, as follows:

  • Area (A)
  • Perimeter (P)
  • Compactness ()
  • Length of kernel
  • Width of kernel
  • Asymmetry coefficient
  • Length of kernel groove

There are three classes that correspond to three wheat varieties: Canadian, Koma, and Rosa. As before, the goal is to be able to classify the species based on these morphological measurements.

Unlike the Iris dataset, which was collected in the 1930s, this is a very recent dataset, and its features were automatically computed from digital images.

This is how image pattern recognition can be implemented: you can take images in digital form, compute a few relevant features from them, and use a generic classification system. Later, we will work through the computer vision side of this problem and compute features in images. For the moment, we will work with the features that are given to us.

UCI Machine Learning Dataset Repository

The University of California at Irvine (UCI) maintains an online repository of machine learning datasets (at the time of writing, they are listing 233 datasets). Both the Iris and Seeds dataset used in this article were taken from there.

The repository is available online:


Features and feature engineering

One interesting aspect of these features is that the compactness feature is not actually a new measurement, but a function of the previous two features, area and perimeter. It is often very useful to derive new combined features. This is a general area normally termed feature engineering; it is sometimes seen as less glamorous than algorithms, but it may matter more for performance (a simple algorithm on well-chosen features will perform better than a fancy algorithm on not-so-good features).

In this case, the original researchers computed the “compactness”, which is a typical feature for shapes (also called “roundness”). This feature will have the same value for two kernels, one of which is twice as big as the other one, but with the same shape. However, it will have different values for kernels that are very round (when the feature is close to one) as compared to kernels that are elongated (when the feature is close to zero).

The goals of a good feature are to simultaneously vary with what matters and be invariant with what does not. For example, compactness does not vary with size but varies with the shape. In practice, it might be hard to achieve both objectives perfectly, but we want to approximate this ideal.

You will need to use background knowledge to intuit which will be good features. Fortunately, for many problem domains, there is already a vast literature of possible features and feature types that you can build upon. For images, all of the previously mentioned features are typical, and computer vision libraries will compute them for you. In text-based problems too, there are standard solutions that you can mix and match. Often though, you can use your knowledge of the specific problem to design a specific feature.

Even before you have data, you must decide which data is worthwhile to collect. Then, you need to hand all your features to the machine to evaluate and compute the best classifier.

A natural question is whether or not we can select good features automatically. This problem is known as feature selection. There are many methods that have been proposed for this problem, but in practice, very simple ideas work best. It does not make sense to use feature selection in these small problems, but if you had thousands of features, throwing out most of them might make the rest of the process much faster.

Nearest neighbor classification

With this dataset, even if we just try to separate two classes using the previous method, we do not get very good results. Let me introduce, therefore, a new classifier: the nearest neighbor classifier.

If we consider that each example is represented by its features (in mathematical terms, as a point in N-dimensional space), we can compute the distance between examples. We can choose different ways of computing the distance, for example:

def distance(p0, p1): 'Computes squared euclidean distance' return np.sum( (p0-p1)**2)

Now when classifying, we adopt a simple rule: given a new example, we look at the dataset for the point that is closest to it (its nearest neighbor) and look at its label:

def nn_classify(training_set, training_labels, new_example): dists = np.array([distance(t, new_example) for t in training_set]) nearest = dists.argmin() return training_labels[nearest]

In this case, our model involves saving all of the training data and labels and computing everything at classification time. A better implementation would be to actually index these at learning time to speed up classification, but this implementation is a complex algorithm.

Now, note that this model performs perfectly on its training data! For each point, its closest neighbor is itself, and so its label matches perfectly (unless two examples have exactly the same features but different labels, which can happen). Therefore, it is essential to test using a cross-validation protocol.

Using ten folds for cross-validation for this dataset with this algorithm, we obtain 88 percent accuracy. As we discussed in the earlier section, the cross-validation accuracy is lower than the training accuracy, but this is a more credible estimate of the performance of the model.

We will now examine the decision boundary. For this, we will be forced to simplify and look at only two dimensions (just so that we can plot it on paper).

In the preceding screenshot, the Canadian examples are shown as diamonds, Kama seeds as circles, and Rosa seeds as triangles. Their respective areas are shown as white, black, and grey. You might be wondering why the regions are so horizontal, almost weirdly so. The problem is that the x axis (area) ranges from 10 to 22 while the y axis (compactness) ranges from 0.75 to 1.0. This means that a small change in x is actually much larger than a small change in y. So, when we compute the distance according to the preceding function, we are, for the most part, only taking the x axis into account.

If you have a physics background, you might have already noticed that we had been summing up lengths, areas, and dimensionless quantities, mixing up our units (which is something you never want to do in a physical system). We need to normalize all of the features to a common scale. There are many solutions to this problem; a simple one is to normalize to Z-scores. The Z-score of a value is how far away from the mean it is in terms of units of standard deviation. It comes down to this simple pair of operations:

# subtract the mean for each feature: features -= features.mean(axis=0) # divide each feature by its standard deviation features /= features.std(axis=0)

Independent of what the original values were, after Z-scoring, a value of zero is the mean and positive values are above the mean and negative values are below it.

Now every feature is in the same unit (technically, every feature is now dimensionless; it has no units) and we can mix dimensions more confidently. In fact, if we now run our nearest neighbor classifier, we obtain 94 percent accuracy!

Look at the decision space again in two dimensions; it looks as shown in the following screenshot:

The boundaries are now much more complex and there is interaction between the two dimensions. In the full dataset, everything is happening in a seven-dimensional space that is very hard to visualize, but the same principle applies: where before a few dimensions were dominant, now they are all given the same importance.

The nearest neighbor classifier is simple, but sometimes good enough. We can generalize it to a k-nearest neighbor classifier by considering not just the closest point but the k closest points. All k neighbors vote to select the label. k is typically a small number, such as 5, but can be larger, particularly if the dataset is very large.

Binary and multiclass classification

The first classifier we saw, the threshold classifier, was a simple binary classifier (the result is either one class or the other as a point is either above the threshold or it is not). The second classifier we used, the nearest neighbor classifier, was a naturally multiclass classifier (the output can be one of several classes).

It is often simpler to define a simple binary method than one that works on multiclass problems. However, we can reduce the multiclass problem to a series of binary decisions. This is what we did earlier in the Iris dataset in a haphazard way; we observed that it was easy to separate one of the initial classes and focused on the other two, reducing the problem to two binary decisions:

  • Is it an Iris Setosa (yes or no)?
  • If no, check whether it is an Iris Virginica (yes or no).

Of course, we want to leave this sort of reasoning to the computer. As usual, there are several solutions to this multiclass reduction.

The simplest is to use a series of “one classifier versus the rest of the classifiers”. For each possible label l, we build a classifier of the type “is this l or something else?”. When applying the rule, exactly one of the classifiers would say “yes” and we would have our solution. Unfortunately, this does not always happen, so we have to decide how to deal with either multiple positive answers or no positive answers.

Alternatively, we can build a classification tree. Split the possible labels in two and build a classifier that asks “should this example go to the left or the right bin?” We can perform this splitting recursively until we obtain a single label. The preceding diagram depicts the tree of reasoning for the Iris dataset. Each diamond is a single binary classifier. It is easy to imagine we could make this tree larger and encompass more decisions. This means that any classifier that can be used for binary classification can also be adapted to handle any number of classes in a simple way.

There are many other possible ways of turning a binary method into a multiclass one. There is no single method that is clearly better in all cases. However, which one you use normally does not make much of a difference to the final result.

Most classifiers are binary systems while many real-life problems are naturally multiclass. Several simple protocols reduce a multiclass problem to a series of binary decisions and allow us to apply the binary models to our multiclass problem.


In a sense, this was a very theoretical article, as we introduced generic concepts with simple examples. We went over a few operations with a classic dataset. This, by now, is considered a very small problem. However, it has the advantage that we were able to plot it out and see what we were doing in detail. This is something that will be lost when we move on to problems with many dimensions and many thousands of examples. The intuitions we gained here will all still be valid.

Classification means generalizing from examples to build a model (that is, a rule that can automatically be applied to new, unclassified objects). It is one of the fundamental tools in machine learning.

We also learned that the training error is a misleading, over-optimistic estimate of how well the model does. We must, instead, evaluate it on testing data that was not used for training. In order to not waste too many examples in testing, a cross-validation schedule can get us the best of both worlds (at the cost of more computation).

We also had a look at the problem of feature engineering. Features are not something that is predefined for you, but choosing and designing features is an integral part of designing a machine-learning pipeline. In fact, it is often the area where you can get the most improvements in accuracy as better data beats fancier methods.

In this article, we wrote all of our own code (except when we used NumPy, of course). We needed to build up intuitions on simple cases to illustrate the basic concepts.

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