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The Problem of Scale

Most clustering algorithms assume the number of clusters to be known a priori. The desired granularity is generally determined by external, problem specific criteria. For example, such a criterion might be the user's willingness to deal with complexity and information overload. This issue of scale remains mostly unsolved although various promising attempts such as Occam's razor, minimum description length, category utility, etc. have been made.

Finding the `right' number of clusters, $ k$, for a data-set is a difficult, and often ill-posed, problem. Gelman in [GCSR95] on page 424 says in a mixture modeling context: ``One viewpoint is that the problem of finding the best number of clusters is fundamentally ill-defined and best avoided.'' Let us illustrate the problem by a data-set where points are arranged in a grid-like pattern on the 2D plane (figure 2.1). The points are arranged in four squares such that when `zooming in' the same square structure exists but on a lower scale. When asking what is the number of clusters for that data-set, there are at least 3 good answers possible, namely 4, 16, and 64. Depending on the desired resolution the `right' number of clusters changes. In general, there are multiple good $ k$'s for any given data. However, a certain number of clusters might be more stable than others. In the example shown in figure 2.1, five clusters is probably not a better choice than four.

Since there seems to be no definite answer to how many clusters are in a data-set, a user-defined criterion for the resolution has to be given instead. In the general case, the number of clusters is assumed to be known. Alternatively, one might want to reformulate the specification of scale through an upper bound of acceptable error (which has to be suitably defined) or some other criterion.

Figure 2.1: Example for the problem of scale. Four examplary clusterings are shown for the 2-dimensional RECSQUARE data-set. 4, 16, and 64 are `equally good' choices for the number of clusters $ k$.

Many heuristics for finding the right number of clusters have been proposed. Occam's razor states that the simplest hypothesis that fits the data is the best [BEHW87,Mit97]. Generally, as the model complexity grows the fit improves. However, over-learning with a loss of generalization may occur. In probabilistic clustering, likelihood-ratios, $ v$-fold-cross-validation, penalized likelihoods (e.g., Bayesian information criterion), and Bayesian techniques (AUTOCLASS) are popular [Smy96,MC85]:

A recent Monte Carlo cross-validation based approach [Mil81] which minimizes the Kullback-Leibler information distance to find the right number of clusters can be found in [Smy96].
Category Utility.
In machine learning, category utility [GC85,Fis87a] has been used to asses the quality of a clustering for a particular $ k$. Category utility is defined as the increase in the expected number of attribute values $ v_{i,h}$ (the $ h$-th discrete level of feature $ i$) that can be correctly guessed, given a partitioning $ \mathbf{\lambda}$ over the expected number of correct guesses with no such knowledge. A weighted average over categories allows comparison of different size partitions.
Bayesian Solution.
In the full Bayesian solution the posterior probabilities of all values of $ k$ are computed from the data and priors for the data and $ k$ itself. AUTOCLASS [CS96] uses this approach with some approximations to avoid computational issues with the complexity of this approach. The complexity makes this approach infeasible for very high-dimensional data.
A feasible approach for high-dimensional data mining is a regularization-based approach. A penalty term is introduced to discourage a high number of parameters. Variations of this theme include penalized likelihoods, such as the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC), and coding-based criteria, such as Minimum Description Length (MDL).

next up previous contents
Next: Curse of Dimensionality Up: Challenges Previous: Challenges   Contents
Alexander Strehl 2002-05-03