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An introduction to data mining

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This chapter from Data Mining: Know it All explains how companies can use data mining and machine learning to make educated decisions. In this section, learn what data mining is and find out how your company can get the most out of its data, solve problems and benefit from data mining and machine learning.

Table of contents:

An introduction to data mining
Simple data mining examples and datasets
Fielded applications of data mining and machine learning
The difference between machine learning and statistics in data mining
Information and examples on data mining and ethics
Data acquisition and integration techniques
What is a data rollup?
Calculating mode in data mining projects
Using data merging and concatenation techniques to integrate data

What's It All About?

Human in vitro fertilization involves collecting several eggs from a woman' s ovaries, which, after fertilization with partner or donor sperm, produce several embryos. Some of these are selected and transferred to the woman's uterus. The problem is to select the "best" embryos to use — the ones that are most likely to survive. Selection is based on around 60 recorded features of the embryos — characterizing their morphology, oocyte, follicle, and the sperm sample. The number of features is sufficiently large that it is difficult for an embryologist to assess them all simultaneously and correlate historical data with the crucial outcome of whether that embryo did or did not result in a live child. In a research project in England, machine learning is being investigated as a technique for making the selection, using as training data historical records of embryos and their outcome.

Every year, dairy farmers in New Zealand have to make a tough business decision: which cows to retain in their herd and which to sell off to an abattoir. Typically, one-fifth of the cows in a dairy herd are culled each year near the end of the milking season as feed reserves dwindle. Each cow's breeding and milk production history influences this decision. Other factors include age (a cow is nearing the end of its productive life at 8 years), health problems, history of difficult calving, undesirable temperament traits (kicking or jumping fences), and not being in calf for the following season. About 700 attributes for each of several million cows have been recorded over the years. Machine learning is being investigated as a way of ascertaining which factors are taken into account by successful farmers — not to automate the decision but to propagate their skills and experience to others.

Life and death. From Europe to the antipodes. Family and business. Machine learning is a burgeoning new technology for mining knowledge from data, a technology that a lot of people are starting to take seriously.

1.1 Data Mining and Machine Learning

Copyright info
Printed with permission from Morgan Kaufmann, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2009. Data Mining: Know It All by Chakrabarti et all. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit www.elsevierdirect.com.

We are overwhelmed with data. The amount of data in the world, in our lives, continues to increase — and there's no end in sight. Omnipresent personal computers make it too easy to save things that previously we would have trashed. Inexpensive multigigabyte disks make it too easy to postpone decisions about what to do with all this stuff — we simply buy another disk and keep it all. Ubiquitous electronics record our decisions, our choices in the supermarket, our financial habits, our comings and goings. We swipe our way through the world, every swipe a record in a database. The World Wide Web overwhelms us with information; meanwhile, every choice we make is recorded. And all these are just personal choices: they have countless counterparts in the world of commerce and industry. We would all testify to the growing gap between the generation of data and our understanding of it. As the volume of data increases, inexorably, the proportion of it that people understand decreases, alarmingly. Lying hidden in all this data is information, potentially useful information, that is rarely made explicit or taken advantage of.

This book is about looking for patterns in data. There is nothing new about this. People have been seeking patterns in data since human life began. Hunters seek patterns in animal migration behavior, farmers seek patterns in crop growth, politicians seek patterns in voter opinion, and lovers seek patterns in their partners' responses. A scientist's job (like a baby's) is to make sense of data, to discover the patterns that govern how the physical world works and encapsulate them in theories that can be used for predicting what will happen in new situations. The entrepreneur's job is to identify opportunities, that is, patterns in behavior that can be turned into a profitable business, and exploit them.

In data mining, the data is stored electronically and the search is automated — or at least augmented — by computer. Even this is not particularly new. Economists, statisticians, forecasters, and communication engineers have long worked with the idea that patterns in data can be sought automatically, identified, validated, and used for prediction. What is new is the staggering increase in opportunities for finding patterns in data. The unbridled growth of databases in recent years, databases on such everyday activities as customer choices, brings data mining to the forefront of new business technologies. It has been estimated that the amount of data stored in the world's databases doubles every 20 months, and although it would surely be difficult to justify this figure in any quantitative sense, we can all relate to the pace of growth qualitatively. As the flood of data swells and machines that can undertake the searching become commonplace, the opportunities for data mining increase. As the world grows in complexity, overwhelming us with the data it generates, data mining becomes our only hope for elucidating the patterns that underlie it. Intelligently analyzed data is a valuable resource. It can lead to new insights and, in commercial settings, to competitive advantages.

Data mining is about solving problems by analyzing data already present in databases. Suppose, to take a well-worn example, the problem is fickle customer loyalty in a highly competitive marketplace. A database of customer choices, along with customer profiles, holds the key to this problem. Patterns of behavior of former customers can be analyzed to identify distinguishing characteristics of those likely to switch products and those likely to remain loyal. Once such characteristics are found, they can be put to work to identify present customers who are likely to jump ship. This group can be targeted for special treatment, treatment too costly to apply to the customer base as a whole. More positively, the same techniques can be used to identify customers who might be attracted to another service the enterprise provides, one they are not presently enjoying, to target them for special offers that promote this service. In today's highly competitive, customer-centered, service-oriented economy, data is the raw material that fuels business growth — if only it can be mined.

Data mining is defined as the process of discovering patterns in data. The process must be automatic or (more usually) semiautomatic. The patterns discovered must be meaningful in that they lead to some advantage, usually an economic advantage. The data is invariably present in substantial quantities.

How are the patterns expressed? Useful patterns allow us to make nontrivial predictions on new data. There are two extremes for the expression of a pattern: as a black box whose innards are effectively incomprehensible and as a transparent box whose construction reveals the structure of the pattern. Both, we are assuming, make good predictions. The difference is whether or not the patterns that are mined are represented in terms of a structure that can be examined, reasoned about, and used to inform future decisions. Such patterns we call structural because they capture the decision structure in an explicit way. In other words, they help to explain something about the data.

Now, finally, we can say what this book is about. It is about techniques for finding and describing structural patterns in data. Most of the techniques that we cover have developed within a field known as machine learning. But first let us look at what structural patterns are.

1.1.1 Describing Structural Patterns
What is meant by structural patterns? How do you describe them? And what form does the input take? We will answer these questions by way of illustration rather than by attempting formal, and ultimately sterile, definitions. We will present plenty of examples later in this chapter, but let's examine one right now to get a feeling for what we're talking about.

Look at the contact lens data in Table 1.1 . This gives the conditions under which an optician might want to prescribe soft contact lenses, hard contact lenses, or no contact lenses at all; we will say more about what the individual features mean later. Each line of the table is one of the examples. Part of a structural description of this information might be as follows:

If tear production rate = reduced then recommendation = none
Otherwise, if age = young and astigmatic = no
then recommendation = soft

Structural descriptions need not necessarily be couched as rules such as these. Decision trees, which specify the sequences of decisions that need to be made and the resulting recommendation, are another popular means of expression.

Table 1.1 The Contact Lens Data

AgeSpectacle PrescriptionAstigmatismTear Production RateRecommended Lenses
YoungMyopeNoReducedNone
YoungMyopeNoNormalSoft
YoungMyopeYesReducedNone
YoungMyopeYesNormalHard
YoungHypermetropeNoReducedNone
YoungHypermetropeNoNormalSoft
YoungHypermetropeYesReducedNone
YoungHypermetropeYesNormalHard
Pre-presbyopicMyopeNoReducedNone
Pre-presbyopicMyopeNoNormalSoft
Pre-presbyopicMyopeYesReducedNone
Pre-presbyopicMyopeYesNormalHard
Pre-presbyopicHypermetropeNoReducedNone
Pre-presbyopicHypermetropeNoNormalSoft
Pre-presbyopicHypermetropeYesReducedNone
Pre-presbyopicHypermetropeYesNormalNone
PresbyopicMyopeNoReducedNone
PresbyopicMyopeNoNormalNone
PresbyopicMyopeYesReducedNone
PresbyopicMyopeYesNormalHard
PresbyopicHypermetropeNoReducedNone
PresbyopicHypermetropeNoNormalSoft
PresbyopicHypermetropeYesReducedNone
PresbyopicHypermetropeYesNormalNone

This example is a simplistic one. First, all combinations of possible values are represented in the table. There are 24 rows, representing three possible values of age and two values each for spectacle prescription, astigmatism, and tear production rate (3 × 2 × 2 × 2 = 24). The rules do not really generalize from the data; they merely summarize it. In most learning situations, the set of examples given as input is far from complete, and part of the job is to generalize to other, new examples. You can imagine omitting some of the rows in the table for which tear production rate is reduced and still coming up with the rule

If tear production rate = reduced then recommendation = none

which would generalize to the missing rows and fill them in correctly. Second, values are specified for all the features in all the examples. Real-life datasets invariably contain examples in which the values of some features, for some reason or other, are unknown — for example, measurements were not taken or were lost. Third, the preceding rules classify the examples correctly, whereas often, because of errors or noise in the data, misclassifications occur even on the data that is used to train the classifier.

1.1.2 Machine Learning
Now that we have some idea about the inputs and outputs, let's turn to machine learning. What is learning, anyway? What is machine learning? These are philosophic questions, and we will not be much concerned with philosophy in this book; our emphasis is firmly on the practical. However, it is worth spending a few moments at the outset on fundamental issues, just to see how tricky they are, before rolling up our sleeves and looking at machine learning in practice. Our dictionary defines "to learn" as follows:

• To get knowledge of by study, experience, or being taught.
• To become aware by information or from observation.
• To commit to memory.
• To be informed of, ascertain.
• To receive instruction.

These meanings have some shortcomings when it comes to talking about computers. For the first two, it is virtually impossible to test whether learning has been achieved or not. How do you know whether a machine has got knowledge of something? You probably can't just ask it questions; even if you could, you wouldn't be testing its ability to learn but would be testing its ability to answer questions. How do you know whether it has become aware of something? The whole question of whether computers can be aware, or conscious, is a burning philosophic issue. As for the last three meanings, although we can see what they denote in human terms, merely "committing to memory" and "receiving instruction" seem to fall far short of what we might mean by machine learning. They are too passive, and we know that computers find these tasks trivial. Instead, we are interested in improvements in performance, or at least in the potential for performance, in new situations. You can "commit something to memory" or "be informed of something" by rote learning without being able to apply the new knowledge to new situations. You can receive instruction without benefiting from it at all.

Earlier we defined data mining operationally as the process of discovering patterns, automatically or semiautomatically, in large quantities of data — and the patterns must be useful. An operational definition can be formulated in the same way for learning:

Things learn when they change their behavior in a way that makes them perform better in the future.

This ties learning to performance rather than knowledge. You can test learning by observing the behavior and comparing it with past behavior. This is a much more objective kind of definition and appears to be far more satisfactory.

But there's still a problem. Learning is a rather slippery concept. Lots of things change their behavior in ways that make them perform better in the future, yet we wouldn't want to say that they have actually learned. A good example is a comfortable slipper. Has it learned the shape of your foot? It has certainly changed its behavior to make it perform better as a slipper! Yet we would hardly want to call this learning. In everyday language, we often use the word "training" to denote a mindless kind of learning. We train animals and even plants, although it would be stretching the word a bit to talk of training objects such as slippers that are not in any sense alive. But learning is different. Learning implies thinking. Learning implies purpose. Something that learns has to do so intentionally. That is why we wouldn't say that a vine has learned to grow round a trellis in a vineyard — we'd say it has been trained. Learning without purpose is merely training. Or, more to the point, in learning the purpose is the learner's, whereas in training it is the teacher's.

Thus, on closer examination the second definition of learning, in operational, performance-oriented terms, has its own problems when it comes to talking about computers. To decide whether something has actually learned, you need to see whether it intended to or whether there was any purpose involved. That makes the concept moot when applied to machines because whether artifacts can behave purposefully is unclear. Philosophic discussions of what is really meant by " learning, " like discussions of what is really meant by "intention" or "purpose," are fraught with difficulty. Even courts of law find intention hard to grapple with.

1.1.3 Data Mining
Fortunately, the kind of learning techniques explained in this book do not present these conceptual problems — they are called machine learning without really presupposing any particular philosophic stance about what learning actually is. Data mining is a practical topic and involves learning in a practical, not a theoretic, sense. We are interested in techniques for finding and describing structural patterns in data as a tool for helping to explain that data and make predictions from it. The data will take the form of a set of examples — examples of customers who have switched loyalties, for instance, or situations in which certain kinds of contact lenses can be prescribed. The output takes the form of predictions about new examples — a prediction of whether a particular customer will switch or a prediction of what kind of lens will be prescribed under given circumstances. But because this book is about finding and describing patterns in data, the output may also include an actual description of a structure that can be used to classify unknown examples to explain the decision. As well as performance, it is helpful to supply an explicit representation of the knowledge that is acquired. In essence, this reflects both definitions of learning considered previously: the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to use it.

Many learning techniques look for structural descriptions of what is learned, descriptions that can become fairly complex and are typically expressed as sets of rules such as the ones described previously or the decision trees described later in this chapter. Because people can understand them, these descriptions explain what has been learned and explain the basis for new predictions. Experience shows that in many applications of machine learning to data mining, the explicit knowledge structures that are acquired, the structural descriptions, are at least as important, and often much more important, than the ability to perform well on new examples. People frequently use data mining to gain knowledge, not just predictions. Gaining knowledge from data certainly sounds like a good idea if you can do it. To find out how, read on!

More on data mining:

  • Continue to the next section: Simple data mining examples and datasets
  • Download a PDF of this chapter for free: "What's it All About?"
  • Read other excerpts from data management books in the Chapter Download Library.

  • This was first published in May 2009

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