Category: Data

Change Detection Tutorial

I’ve been working on a tutorial on change detection. This is the first time I’ve attempted to write a tutorial, and it’s been a useful learning process. I’m not “done” yet, but I feel it is at the point where I can announce that it exists.

While the transition from “notebooks where Aman is fooling around” to “a well-written tutorial with a narrative” is far from complete, I’ve invested enough time without any validation of whether anyone is actually interested in reading all this. If there’s significant interest or requests, I will be happy to invest more time in cleaning up this tutorial and maybe even adding more topics.

You can check out my tutorial on change detection here:

Why a tutorial on change detection?

Change detection is a type of problem in which we want to detect an interesting change in a signal. In the tutorial, I consider the signal to be a stream of (scalar) values, and take an online approach to the problem. I leave it open to interpretation what we mean by “interesting change”.

A toy signal for change detection

A toy signal for change detection. What kind of change is interesting? What is important to detect and what should be ignored?

The objective of the tutorial is to introduce to discuss some fundamental concepts in change detection, to highlight some important use-cases of these algorithms, and to encourage the reader to think about the context of the problem before designing a solution.

I find this topic very interesting, and I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to work on a few projects over the last years in which change detection was an important component. The problem is also tied to the more general subject of anomaly detection, which is turning out to be a recurring theme in my work.

Most importantly, I think there is a huge and growing demand in this subject. It is simply impossible to use purely manual methods to keep tabs on the tremendous amounts of data that we’re generating as a society, and in many scenarios the most interesting things are those that are NOT normal — they that fall rapidly, they rise sharply, they fit an unusual pattern or or they do not fit a usual pattern. Systems that utilize change detection algorithms — often as part of a larger solution — will help us sort through all our data and enable appropriate decisions to be made accurately and on time.

Topics Covered

Some of the topics covered in the tutorial are:

  • Online vs Offline algorithms, simulating online detection.
  • Designing residuals and stop conditions
  • Welford’s method
  • Comparing multiple windows on a single stream.
  • Anomaly detection in EKG signals

Some screenshots



Simulating online detection algorithms. Here the stopping condition (fired at the vertical red line) is triggered immediately after the change.


Detecting change in a seasonal signal (shown on top). The residual (on bottom) rises sharply after change, but is resistant to the seasonal variation.


We study a signal with outliers and noise, and try to design a detector sensitive to change using z-scores.I’ve been working on a number of problems in the past few years on change detection and anomaly detection.

EKG signals

To look at EKG signals, I borrowed from Ted Dunning’s presentation at Strata. I recreated his solution in python (his solution, available on github at uses Java and Mahout).

I actually haven’t finished writing this section yet, it’s an exciting enough topic that I feel I could sink a lot of time into it. I spent (only) several hours reading and ingesting the EKG data, and (only) several more hours re-writing Ted Dunning’s algorithm. But after that initial effort, I put in a large amount of intermittent effort trying to make this section presentable and useful for a tutorial — and therein lies the time sink. I’ll fix this section up based on feedback from readers.


EKG signal

EKG signal


Using clustering, we construct a dictionary of small signal windows from which to reconstruct a full signal. Here are a few of the windows in the dictionary.

Ted Dunning’s approach to anomaly detection in EKG signals is as follows. First, a dictionary of representative small segments (windows) is created. These windows are found by using k-means clustering on a “normal” EKG signal. This dictionary, constructed from the training data, is used to reconstruct the EKG signal of interest.

If a test signal is successfully reconstructed from the dictionary, the signal is much like those found in the training data, and can be considered normal. If the reconstruction has a high error rate, there’s something in the signal that may be anomalous, suggesting a potentially unhealthy EKG that should be investigated further.


A reconstruction (bottom row) of an EKG signal (middle row). The top row shows both signals superimposed.

I have not tuned the model in the tutorial; there is room for improvement in the training phase, parameter selection, and other adjustments. That’s another potential time sink, so I’ve temporarily convinced myself that it’s actually better, for a tutorial, to leave that as an exercise for the reader.

If all this sounds interesting, please do take a look at the tutorial here:

I’ll be happy to receive any comments or feedback!

UC Berkeley BIDS Launch and Conscilience

Yesterday I attended the launch of the University of California Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS). The Moore and Sloan Foundations announced a 5 year, $37.8 million contribution to kick start this Institute, which will be the third of its kind in the country. The other two are at the University of Washington and NYU. The Institute will open physically in 2014, with a pretty nice real estate inside the Doe Memorial Library.

Univerity of California, Berkeley logo

Univerity of California, Berkeley logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am pretty enthusiastic to have this Institute so close to home. There will be great opportunities to attend events and take advantage of whatever resources are made available to the community at large (I’m not a student at Cal). More than that, I would be interested in contributing my own time, or enabling a collaboration with The Data Guild, in whatever way possible, to advance the local data science community through UC Berkeley.

Packed house at the BIDS launch event

Packed house at the BIDS launch event

The launch event consisted of talks and presentations by many of the people involved, including Cal Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, the director of BIDS (and Nobel laureate) Saul Perlmutter, Tim O’Reilly, and Peter Norvig of Google fame. There were also interesting talks about academic data science projects currently in progress at the University. 

A key idea, one that seemed to form a common thread across all the talks, was that of conscilience. The term was popularized by EO Wilson in 1998 in his eponymous book, in which he talks about disciplines —  the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities — moving closer to each other. Part observation and part projection, Wilson pointed out that part of this bridging between disciplines would be due to advances in technology and computation.

In the data science context, this shrinking of gaps between previously distinct communities and cultures is often observed between the scientific/academic and the commercial/industrial communities, two groups which historically have had very different objectives and approaches. We have seen in recent years that this is changing rapidly. Joshua Bloom noted in the panel discussion at the end of the evening that they are still quite separate, and likely will always be separate, but that they are undeniably much closer together than they have been in the past.

The talks at the BIDS launch event went beyond this common observation, though. Several mentioned the meeting of the hard sciences with social sciences, and the inter-disciplinary collaborations through data science. They talked about in the benefit of learning to think about problems in new, more data-centric ways, and how such data-driven approach was methodologically-centered rather than domain-specific. They specifically described how this shift towards methodology would create new types of specialists that could operate successfully across many disciplines. They even described a shift in cultures, harkening directly back to EO Wilson, and back to CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument

Wonderful, and appropriate, that the launch of a new institute of data science should bring together so many bright persons from a broad array of backgrounds, and create an opportunity for these philosophical reflections. These next few decades are going to be a very exciting time, when we get to observe and be part of the contribution that data science is making to the unity of knowledge. 

Andrew’s Curves now free with python pandas (Reading log)

A blog post by Vytautas Jančauskas talks about the implementation of Andrew’s Curves in Python Pandas. These curves, introduced in David Andrew’s paper in 1972, allow one to visualize high dimensional data through transformation.

It is now trivial to generate such a plot from your pandas dataframe:

import pandas as pd
df = pd.Dataframe(some_data, columns = ['y', 'x1', 'x2', 'x3', 'x4', 'x5']), class_column='y')

I think this is a powerful and exciting tool that could be very insightful for exploratory data analysis.


Example: Andrews Plot of randomly generated data

I noticed a bug in the pandas implementation, which resulted in a Stack Overflow question and a pull request to pandas. The bug was corrected with impressive speed.

I read this paper that expounds upon some of Andrew’s ideas:
César García-Osorio, Colin Fyfe, “Visualization of High-Dimensional Data via Orthogonal Curves” (2005).

After playing around and reading a bit, I came up with some ideas for future work on this new feature:

Labels and ticks

In the above example plot, which I generated, the xticks are at multiples of π — which is sensible because what we are looking at is the projection of data onto the vector of Fourier series on the range (−π < t < π) . But the current pandas implementation has xticks at integer multiples. It also doesn’t provide axis labels. I should create a PR for this.

Column order

The shape of Andrew’s curves are highly influenced by the order of variables in the transformation. So in the pandas implementation, the order of the columns is significant.

Here are two plots of the air quality data set — the only difference is column order:
[Added the code I used to generate these plot at the bottom of this section.]


Andrew’s Curves on the same dataset (airquality), but with changed column order.

One might argue this difference does not matter… that if all you are doing is checking for structure in a dataset, then the shape of that structure is not important (compare the airquality Andrew’s Plot to the one with random data above). But in fact shapes can be very important when you are using visual data to develop an intuition about numbers. Also, Andrew’s Curves can be very informative beyond a binary “yes there is” / “no there isn’t” decision with respect to structure, and in that case the column order here could become analogous to bin widths in a histogram.

Here is the same “column-order experiment” as above, this time for the mtcars dataset:


Andrew’s Curves on the same dataset (mtcars), but with changed column order.

Surprised? Me too. For the sake of reproducibility, here are the column orders for the three mtcars plots:

['qsec', 'vs', 'am', 'gear', 'carb', 'mpg', 'cyl', 'disp', 'hp', 'drat', 'wt']
['wt', 'qsec', 'vs', 'am', 'gear', 'carb', 'mpg', 'cyl', 'disp', 'hp', 'drat']
['drat', 'wt', 'qsec', 'vs', 'am', 'gear', 'carb', 'mpg', 'cyl', 'disp', 'hp']

This is an inherent weakness with Andrew’s Curves, and no fault of pandas. The people that provide powerful tools cannot be responsible for mistakes that users might make. However, going along with analogy made earlier, anybody creating a tool to generate histograms will provide the capability to adjust bin sizes. In the same way, this vulnerability might need to be acknowledged in some way: by, for example, allowing the user to specify a column order when creating an Andrews Plot, or by allowing the user to generate several plots each with a random column order.

Other Plots

Andrew’s Curves also have other weaknesses, such as biasing some frequencies over others. Variations exist to address these weaknesses, and there are other visualizations built on the principle of transforming high-dimensional data. These might be worth exploring in more detail, but I’m out of time for now. See the paper by García-Osorio for more details.

The code used to generate some of the plots in this post:

/cc @orbitfold @tacaswell @jtratner

Update (2013 Oct 30):
In the above column order test, I was simply cycling the column order, not shuffling them. In the plot below, I’m rearranging the columns completely using random.shuffle(). Also included as a bonus is a side-by-side comparison with a Parallel Coordinates Plot (PCP).


On the left are Andrew’s Curves, and the right column of figures are Parallel Coordinate Plots. Each row has a different column order. [Used the mtcars dataset with ‘gear’ as the class column. ]

Joining The Data Guild

I am happy to announce that recently I’ve joined forces with The Data Guild!

What is — who are — The Data Guild? Their website says:

The Data Guild brings together deeply experienced data scientists, social scientists, designers and engineers from diverse industry backgrounds to tackle important problems and challenges.

This new relationship doesn’t encroach on any of the benefits and freedoms that I enjoy by working independently, and that was an important consideration. And there are great practical reasons to work with a team. But what really attracted my interest in The Data Guild, and the reasons why I want to work with them, are less tangible than these.


When I visited universities in India a few years ago, I had noticed a strong resistance to the sharing of knowledge that leads to creative thinking and unique ideas. The system in which those schools lived seemed severely limited in this regard. But by working as an independent consultant, I am constantly fighting a similar battle.

It costs me a great deal of energy to continually expose myself to new ideas and projects, to find inter-disciplinary collaboration. And I am rarely able to bounce ideas around with someone who understands the nuances of what I am talking about; I also lack intra-disciplinary collaboration.

By being part of a community like The Data Guild, I am hopeful to find frequent opportunities for such cross-pollination of ideas.

But that’s not the best part.


It has been two years since I started working independently as a consultant, and I have been naturally in a mood of self-assessment. I had quit my job back then because I was not satisfied in just earning a good salary. I had wanted to work on problems that I found more interesting and challenging. I feel good about what my progress on this front. But I had also wanted to work on projects that had some positive impact in a way that mattered to me. In that, I have far to go.

So it was perfect timing when, last month, I met with the founders of The Data Guild — Chris Diehl, Dave Gutelius and Cameron Turner. They talked about their vision of assembling a team of experts that were passionate about doing something significant with their efforts.

There is plenty of money to be made forming a company or working for one in the “big data” world. In this nascent industry, the “low-hanging fruit” — the business models that are immediately profitable — are ones that I do not find to be satisfying. Developing a new non-relational database, or optimizing bidding strategies for advertising — these projects are often technically impressive and have good business justification. But I do not find them compelling.

I would like to spend my time working on problems that are interesting not just for their own sake, but for the impact that they have on our world. On their first blog post, The Data Guild writes:


“We shouldn’t have been surprised; the best and brightest people we know want a chance to make a difference in the world, and to work creatively on teams where they can reach their full potential.  We wanted to create a space where these incredible teams could tackle the most significant global challenges we face – but also make a living doing it.  We wanted to challenge the idea that there’s a necessary tradeoff between making a difference and making a living.”

People who think like this are people I can be proud to work with. That is the reason I’m excited about working The Data Guild.

Links:, Open Government Platform, and Cancer data sets

After attending a lecture at University of San Francisco by Jonathan Reichental (@Reichental) on the use of open data in the public sector, I started poking around some data sets available at is pretty impressive. The site was established in 2009 by Vivek Kundra, the first person with the title “Federal CIO” of the United States, appointed by Barack Obama.  It is rapidly adding data sets; sixty-four thousand data sets have been added just in the last year.

Interestingly, there is an open-source version of itself, called the open government platform. It is built on Drupal and available on github. The initiative is spear-headed by the US and the Indian governments, to help promote transparency and citizen engagement by making data widely and easily available. Awesome.

The Indian version is: There is also a Canadian version, a Ghanaian version, and many other countries are following suit.

I started mucking around and produced a plot of the Age-adjusted Urinary Bladder cancer occurrence, by state.

  • The data was easy to find. I downloaded it without declaring who I am or why I’m downloading the data, and I didn’t have to wait for any approval.
  • The data was well-formatted and trivially easy to digest using python pandas.
  • Ipython notebook and data source available below.




If you’re interested in this data, you should also check out , which I didn’t know existed until I started writing this post. I was able to retrieve this map from there:



Non-convex sets with k-means and hierarchical clustering

Bad mouthing old friends

I got into a conversation recently about k-means clustering —  you know, as you do — and let me tell you, poor k-means was really getting bashed. “K-means sucks at this”, “K-means can’t do that”. It was really rather vicious, and I felt I had to step up to defend our old friend k-means. So I started writing up something that shows that those oft-highlighted weaknesses of k-means aren’t nearly bad as people think, and in most cases don’t outweigh the awesomeness that k-means brings to the party.

It started to get quite lengthy, so I’m breaking it up into pieces and maybe I’ll put it all together into one thing later. This post is the first of those pieces.

Convex sets

“K-means can’t handle non-convex sets”.

Non-Convex set

A non-convex set

Convex sets: In Euclidean space, an object is convex if for every pair of points within the object, every point on the straight line segment that joins them is also within the object. [Source: Wikipedia.]

The k-means algorithm, in its basic form, is like making little circular paper cutouts and using them to cover the data points. We can change the quantity and size and position of our paper cut-outs, but they are still round and, thus, these non-convex shapes evade us.

That is, what are doing when we use k-means is constructing a mixture of k-gaussians. This works well if the data can be described by spatially separated hyper-spheres.

Here’s a clustering example, borrowed directly from the sklearn documentation on clustering. These are two slightly entangled banana spheres. That’s two non-convex shapes, and they are not spatially separated.


When we try to use k-means on this example, it doesn’t do very well. There’s just no way to form these two clusters with two little circular paper cut-outs. Or three.

k-means on the banana shapes

k-means performs poorly on the banana shapes

K-means pairs well

But by combining k-means with another algorithm, hierarchical clustering, we can solve this problem. Pairing k-means with other techniques turns out to be a very effective way to draw from its benefits while overcoming its deficiencies. It’s like our theme. I’ll do it again in another post, just you watch.

First, we cluster the data into a large number of clusters using k-means. Below, I’ve plotted the centroids of clusters after k-means clustering using 21. [Why 21? Well, actually, it doesn’t matter very much in the end.]

Centroids of 21 kmeans clusters

Centroids of 21 k-means clusters

Then, we take these many clusters from k-means and then start clustering them together into bigger clusters using a single-link agglomerative method.  That is, we repeatedly pick the two clusters that are closest together and merge them. It is important in this scenario that we use the “single-link” method, in which the distance between two clusters is defined by the distance between the two closest data points we can find, one from each cluster.

Here’s what that looks like:

hierarchical clustering animation

Woah woah. Did you see that one near the end? The one where we’ve taken 616 data points, formed a whole bunch [I used k=51 for the animation to get lots of colorful frames] of clusters with k-means , and then agglomerated them into … this:

clustered bananas

Yup, that one. So pretty.

So many benefits

You get it already, I’m sure. We’re making lots of those little circles, covering all the data points with them. Then, we are attaching the little circles to each other, in pairs, by repeatedly picking the two that are closest.

K-means and single-link clustering. Combining the two algorithms is a pretty robust technique. It is less sensitive to initialization than pure k-means. It is also less sensitive to choice of parameters. When we have many points, we use an algorithm that is fast and parallelizable. After the heavy lifting is done, we can afford to use the more expensive hierarchical method, and reap its benefits, too.

There are many additional problems with k-means: sensitivity to initialization, the need to pick k, poor performance in high-dimensions. Today we looked at those damn non-convex sets. I’ll dive into some of the others in future posts.

By the way, in the banana shapes solution today, note that we don’t have to specify ahead of time the expected final number of clusters. We specified some arbitrary large number for k, but we finished up with hierarchical clustering. We could use one of many well-studied techniques to decide when to stop clustering. For example, we could automate a stopping rule using concepts of separation and cohesion — see this post for a hint.

Related posts:

Mean absolute percentage error (MAPE) in Scikit-learn

On CrossValidated, the StackExchange for statistics, someone asks:

How can we calculate the Mean absolute percentage error (MAPE) of our predictions using Python and scikit-learn?

Mean Absolute Percentage Error (MAPE) is an metric used to determine the success of a regression analysis. Read my answer on CV here:

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