Interpretability and Decision Trees

Let's say you have a behavior in your application that you want to maximize. And that a really cold and heartless way of saying, that: there's something you want people to do.

And if you are a newspaper site that might be: buy a subscription to your site. [...] If you're a site with ads, it's: click on those ads. And if you're a dating site, it's: subscribe to the dating site; or [...] go on a date with someone. Or it could be signing up for a newsletter. It could be [...] commenting or contributing content. Or it just could be something really amorphous, like play a video game five (5) seconds longer than you otherwise would.

But let's say you have this behavior that you are trying to maximize and you can measure it. And you have a metric for measuring it.

So [what you want is to] figure out, from the data, which attributes contribute to maximizing that behavior.


We do know that certain types of algorithms work better with certain types of data, with certain amounts of data.


When you have data you already understand, that means mathematically you have a mapping from a data to a label.


Classification is the process of taking the data you have that's labelled, and building a model that let's you guess at what's the label might be for data that you have that isn't labelled.

There's also another side to it though. Which is taking this kind of business problem, that is I have something I want to maximize or there's a behavior I'm measuring but I don't understand the metrics that are leading into it, and understanding that. So taking labelled data, that is, the behavior you are measuring, and saying, what attributes lead to one label versus another.

So, this broadly falls under the category of regression analysis.


There are lots of technique [for regression analysis].


[One technique for doing regression analysis] is a decision tree approach.

So we could use a k-nearest neighbour approach. We could say, here are the featured items and here are the items near them.

We could use a naive bayes approach. Where we train on the featured set, and then apply it to the unlabelled set.

But decision trees work particularly well for this kind application for a few reasons.

[...] decision trees are what we call a non-parametric supervised learning method.

And they are useful for both regression and classification. And that means it will tell you what the classification metrics are. Which means you can use them to take a lot of data and understand what's happening.

And that's what we call interpretability. Which is really important for a couple of reasons.

The first being that, if you are trying to understand a business problem, and you get back that the answer is five (5) but with no units and no context, that's not very useful to you. Or even worse if you get back that your answer is an n by m dimensional vector or something.

It means that your model can be understood by humans!

It's also really important for debugging. And I know it's very cool to pretend that we never go through a debugging process with building models on data, but of course we all do.

And it can help you as a human being understand what is happening with your data as you work with it.

Even if you go to a non-interpretable model later. Like maybe you'll test with a decision tree until you understand the features, and then build a support vector machine. That's a perfectly valid way to build a project.

Interpretability is really important.

It's also important on the product side. People get upset when they get recommendations that they don't see why they are getting it. [...]

So decision trees also have the added benefit of being able to handle multiple types of data. Generally with these kinds of classification problems our attributes might be scalar data. That is numbers, in a range of numbers. Where it makes sense that zero (0) is less than one (1), is less that two (2). Or they might be labels. Like tags on an object. [...] And it's good for both of those types of data.

Once you have your decision tree, it's really easy and fast to make a new prediction. Because the cost of using a trained decision tree is logarithmic to the number of points used to train a tree. Because the number of points is the maximum number of leaves you can possibly have; and you are going down the tree. So, it's much faster than it otherwise might be.

[...] Before we get too excited about decision trees there are a few things you always have to keep in mind.

The first is overfitting.

Overfitting is always something to keep in mind when you are working on a classification problem. Overfitting means that your classifier is learning things that are too specific to the training set. As much as we try, the training data is never truly representative of the data that exists in the world. And it's likely to have some known flaws. And you may in fact have sampled you data, because it is too big. [...] It could learn rules that are too specific.

An example of this is that, you might feed in the purchase data for one day. But it turns out that everybody buys beer on Thursday. But not on any other day. And if you happen to feed in a Thursday, you are going to have this problem in your model where it is over fed for Thursday beer.

Another problem is that it is NP-complete.

[...] So nothing is actually perfect. [...] There are wonderful heuristics for calculating decision trees [...]. But you may not get the optimal result. [...]

Another thing to keep in mind, is that some things don't really lend themselves to tree style if-then rules. Some relationships between pieces of data are really complex. And there are even things like XOR style relationships which are hard to represent in an if-then rule. So while you might be able to train a decision tree to represent them, you'll end up with something really complicated [that doesn't lend itself to interpretability]. When another technique might have been really simple.

So you should keep in mind the nature of the data also.

-- Hilary Mason

from "Hilary Mason: Advanced Machine Learning"

Quoted on Sun Sep 2nd, 2012