Exploring spark.ml with the Titanic Kaggle competition

December 16, 2015 - machine learning, tutorial, Spark, Kaggle

It’s been a while since my last post, and in this post I’m going to talk about a technology I’ve been using for almost a year now: Apache Spark.

Basically, Spark lets you do data processing in a distributed manner. The project is subdivided in modules:

Today, I’ll talk about MLlib which is, as previously mentioned, the Spark submodule dedicated to machine learning. This submodule is split in two: spark.mllib which is built on top of the old RDDs and spark.ml which is built on top of the DataFrame API. In this post, I’ll talk exclusively about spark.ml which aims to ease the process of creating machine learning pipelines.

If you want to follow this tutorial you will have to download spark which can be done here. Additionnally, you will need a few dependencies in order to build your project:

groupId artifactId version scope
org.apache.spark spark-core_2.10 1.5.2 provided
org.apache.spark spark-sql_2.10 1.5.2 compile
org.apache.spark spark-mllib_2.10 1.5.2 compile
com.databricks spark-csv_2.10 1.2.0 compile

We’ll be using the Titanic dataset taken from a Kaggle competition. The goal is to predict if a passenger survived from a set of features such as the class the passenger was in, hers/his age or the fare the passenger paid to get on board.

You can find the code for this post on Github.

Data exploration and data transformation

Getting to know the Titanic dataset

You can find a description of the features on Kaggle.

The dataset is split in two: train.csv and test.csv. As you’ve probably already guessed, train.csv will contain labeled data (the Survived column will be filled) and test.csv will be unlabeled data. The goal is to predict for each example/passenger in test.csv whether or not she/he survived.

Loading the Titanic dataset

Since the data is in csv format, we’ll use spark-csv which will parse our csv data and give us back DataFrames.

To load the train.csv and test.csv file, I wrote the following function:

def loadData(
trainFile: String,
testFile: String,
sqlContext: SQLContext
): (DataFrame, DataFrame) = {
val nullable = true
val schemaArray = Array(
StructField("PassengerId", IntegerType, nullable),
StructField("Survived", IntegerType, nullable),
StructField("Pclass", IntegerType, nullable),
StructField("Name", StringType, nullable),
StructField("Sex", StringType, nullable),
StructField("Age", FloatType, nullable),
StructField("SibSp", IntegerType, nullable),
StructField("Parch", IntegerType, nullable),
StructField("Ticket", StringType, nullable),
StructField("Fare", FloatType, nullable),
StructField("Cabin", StringType, nullable),
StructField("Embarked", StringType, nullable)

val trainSchema = StructType(schemaArray)
val testSchema = StructType(schemaArray.filter(p => p.name != "Survived"))

val csvFormat = "com.databricks.spark.csv"

val trainDF = sqlContext.read
.option("header", "true")

val testDF = sqlContext.read
.option("header", "true")

(trainDF, testDF)

This function takes the paths to the train.csv and test.csv files as the two first arguments and a sqlContext which will have been initialized beforehand like so:

val sc = new SparkContext(new SparkConf().setAppName("Titanic"))
val sqlContext = new SQLContext(sc)

Although not mandatory, we define the schema for the data as it is the same for both files except for the Survived column.

Then, we use spark-csv to load our data.

Feature engineering

Next, we’ll do a bit of feature engineering on this dataset.

If you have a closer look at the Name column, you probably see that there is some kind of title included in the name such as “Sir”, “Mr”, “Mrs”, etc. I think it is a valuable piece of information and I think it can influence whether someone survived or not, that’s why I extracted it in its own column.

My first intuition was to extract this title with a regex with the help of a UDF (for user-defined function):

val Pattern = ".*, (.*?)\\..*".r
val title: (String => String) = {
case Pattern(t) => t
case _ => ""
val titleUDF = udf(title)

val dfWithTitle = df.withColumn("Title", titleUDF(col("Name")))

Unfortunately, every passenger’s name doesn’t comply with this regex and this resulted in some noise in the Title column. As a result, I just looked for the distinct titles produced by my UDF


and adapted it a bit:

val Pattern = ".*, (.*?)\\..*".r
val titles = Map(
"Mrs" -> "Mrs",
"Lady" -> "Mrs",
"Mme" -> "Mrs",
"Ms" -> "Ms",
"Miss" -> "Miss",
"Mlle" -> "Miss",
"Master" -> "Master",
"Rev" -> "Rev",
"Don" -> "Mr",
"Sir" -> "Sir",
"Dr" -> "Dr",
"Col" -> "Col",
"Capt" -> "Col",
"Major" -> "Col"
val title: ((String, String) => String) = {
case (Pattern(t), sex) => titles.get(t) match {
case Some(tt) => tt
case None =>
if (sex == "male") "Mr"
else "Mrs"
case _ => "Mr"
val titleUDF = udf(title)

val dfWithTitle = df.withColumn("Title", titleUDF(col("Name"), col("Sex")))

This UDF tries to match on the previously defined pattern Pattern. If the regex matches we’ll try to find the title in our titles map. Finally, if we don’t find it, we’ll define the title based on the Sex column: “Mr” if “male”, “Mrs” otherwise.

I, then, wanted to represent the family size of each passenger with the help of the Parch column (which represents the number of parents/children aboard the Titanic) and the SibSp column (which represents the number of siblings/spouses aboard):

val familySize: ((Int, Int) => Int) = (sibSp: Int, parCh: Int) => sibSp + parCh + 1
val familySizeUDF = udf(familySize)
val dfWithFamilySize = df
.withColumn("FamilySize", familySizeUDF(col("SibSp"), col("Parch")))

The family size UDF just does the sum of the SibSp and the Parch columns plus one.

Handling NA values

You have two options when dealing with NA:


After noticing that NA values were present in the Age, Fare and Embarked columns, I chose to replace them:

In order to do this, I calculated the average of the Age column like so:

val avgAge = trainDF.select("Age").unionAll(testDF.select("Age"))
.collect() match {
case Array(Row(avg: Double)) => avg
case _ => 0

Same thing for the Fare column. I, then, filled my dataset with those averages:

val dfFilled = df.na.fill(Map("Fare" -> avgFare, "Age" -> avgAge)

Another option, which I won’t cover here, is to train a regression model on the Age column and use this model to predict the age for the examples where the Age is NA. Same thing goes for handling NA for the Fare column.

However, spark-csv treats NA strings as empty strings instead of NAs (this is a known bug described here). This is why I coded a UDF which transforms empty strings in the Embarked column to “S” for Southampton:

val embarked: (String => String) = {
case "" => "S"
case a => a
val embarkedUDF = udf(embarked)
val dfFilled = df.withColumn("Embarked", embarkedUDF(col("Embarked")))

Building the ML pipeline

What’s very interesting about spark.ml compared to spark.mllib, aside from dealing with DataFrames instead of RDDs, is the fact that you can build and tune your own machine learning pipeline as we’ll see in a bit.

There are two main concepts in spark.ml (extracted from the guide):

A pipeline is an ordered combination of Transformers and Estimators.

Description of our pipeline

In this post, we’ll be training a random forest and since spark.ml can’t handle categorical features or labels unless they are indexed, our first job will be to do just that.

Then, we’ll assemble all our feature columns into one vector column because every spark.ml machine learning algorithm expects that.

Once this is done, we can train our random forest as our data is in the expected format.

Finally, we’ll have to unindex our labels so they can be interpretable by us and the Kaggle tester.

Indexing categorical features and labels

Fortunately, there are already built-in transformers to index categorical features, we just have to choose between two options:

  1. Assemble all the features into one vector (through VectorAssembler) and then use a VectorIndexer. The problem with VectorIndexer is that it will index every feature which has less than maxCategories (which you can set with setMaxCategories) no matter whether it is indeed categorical or not. In our case, there are categorical features with quite a few categories (Title for example) and quantitative features without too many different values (such as SibSp or Parch). That’s why I don’t think this is the way to go.
  2. Index every feature, which you know is categorical, one by one with StringIndexer. At the time of this writing, there is, unfortunately, no way to create a single StringIndexer which will index all your categorical features in one step (there is a PR going on to do just that here though).

We wil proceed with option 2 in order to have a bit more control over which features is getting indexed:

val categoricalFeatColNames = Seq("Pclass", "Sex", "Embarked", "Title")
val stringIndexers = categoricalFeatColNames.map { colName =>
new StringIndexer()
.setOutputCol(colName + "Indexed")

We also index our label which corresponds to the Survived column:

val labelIndexer = new StringIndexer()

Assembling our features into one column

Now that our indexing is done, we just need to assemble all our feature columns into one single column containing a vector regrouping all our features. To do that, we’ll use the built-in VectorAssembler transformer:

val numericFeatColNames = Seq("Age", "SibSp", "Parch", "Fare", "FamilySize")
val idxdCategoricalFeatColName = categoricalFeatColNames.map(_ + "Indexed")
val allIdxdFeatColNames = numericFeatColNames ++ idxdCategoricalFeatColName
val assembler = new VectorAssembler()
.setInputCols(Array(allIdxdFeatColNames: _*))

We’ll now have two columns:

Using a classifier

Now that our data is in the proper format expected by spark.ml we can use a classifier. Here I’ll use a RandomForestClassifier but since our data is properly formatted we can replace it by any spark.ml classifier we want:

val randomForest = new RandomForestClassifier()

Retrieving our original labels

IndexToString is the reverse operation of StringIndexer and will convert back our indexes to the original labels so they can be interpretable. Indeed, as indicated in the documentation for random forests, the call on the transform method of the model produced by the RandomForestClassifier will produce a prediction column which will contain indexed labels which we need unindexed.

val labelConverter = new IndexToString()

Bringing it all together

Since all our different steps have been implemented, we can create our pipeline:

val pipeline = new Pipeline().setStages(Array.concat(
Array(labelIndexer, assembler, randomForest, labelConverter)

We first apply each StringIndexer for every one of our categorical features and our label, we then assemble every feature into one column. Then, we train our random forest and we finally convert back the indexed labels predicted to the original ones.

Selecting the best model

In order to select the best model, you’ll often find yourself performing a grid search over a set of parameters, for each combination of parameters do cross validation and keep the best model according to some performance indicator.

This is a bit tedious and spark.ml aims to simplify that with an easy-to-use API.

A quick reminder if you don’t know what cross validation is: you chose a number k of folds, for example 3, your dataset will be split into three parts, from those 3 parts, 3 different pairs of training and test data will be generated (2/3 of the data for the training and 1/3 for the test). Then the model is evaluated on the average of the chosen performance indicator over the three pairs.

First, we’re going to want to create a grid of parameters:

val paramGrid = new ParamGridBuilder()
.addGrid(randomForest.maxBins, Array(25, 28, 31))
.addGrid(randomForest.maxDepth, Array(4, 6, 8))
.addGrid(randomForest.impurity, Array("entropy", "gini"))

The different parameters for spark.ml’s random forests can be found in the scaladoc.

Next, we need to define an Evaluator which, as its name implies, will evaluate our model according to some metric. There are three built-in evaluator: one for regression, one for binary classification and another one multiclass classification. In our case, we’re only interested in the BinaryClassificationEvaluator. The default metric used for binary classification is the area under the ROC curve. A BinaryClassificationEvaluator can be created in the following way:

val evaluator = new BinaryClassificationEvaluator()

However, another metric is available for binary classification: the area under the precision-recall curve which can be used with:

val evaluator = new BinaryClassificationEvaluator()

We also need an Estimator to be trained, in our case, it will be our whole pipeline.

Finally, after chosing k=10, the number of folds the data will be split into during cross validation, we can create a CrossValidator object like so:

val cv = new CrossValidator()

Since our CrossValidator is an Estimator, we can obtain the best model for our data by calling the fit method on it:

val crossValidatorModel = cv.fit(data)

We can now make predictions on the test.csv file given by Kaggle:

val predictions = crossValidatorModel.transform(dfToPredict)

WARNING: You have to be careful when running cross validation, especially on bigger datasets, as it will train k x p models where k represents the number of folds used for cross validation and p is the product of the number of values for each param in your grid.

If we go back to our previous example with k=10 and the following parameter grid:

val paramGrid = new ParamGridBuilder()
.addGrid(randomForest.maxBins, Array(25, 28, 31)) // 3 different values
.addGrid(randomForest.maxDepth, Array(4, 6, 8)) // 3 different values
.addGrid(randomForest.impurity, Array("entropy", "gini")) // 2 different values

We get p = 3 x 3 x 2 = 18, so our cross validation will train k x p = 10 x 18 = 180 different models.

Submitting the results to Kaggle

Now that we have our predictions, we just need to transform our data in order to fit the expected format by Kaggle and save it to a csv file:

.withColumn("Survived", col("predictedLabel"))
.select("PassengerId", "Survived")
.option("header", "true")

There is still one more step to be performed: the output file will unfortunately be in a directory in the part-[0-9]{5} hadoop format. As a result, I wrote a little script to launch the Spark job and rename the output file so it is ready to be submitted to Kaggle:


DIR="$( cd "$( dirname "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" )" && pwd )"

rm -rf ${OUTPUT}
rm -rf ${TMP_FILE}

cd ${DIR}
mvn clean package
spark-submit \
--class com.github.benfradet.Titanic \
--master local[2] \
target/titanic-1.0-SNAPSHOT.jar \
src/main/resources/train.csv src/main/resources/test.csv ${OUTPUT}

mv ${OUTPUT}/part-00000 ${TMP_FILE}
rm -rf ${OUTPUT}


I hope this was an interesting introduction to spark.ml and that I could convey the simplicity and expressiveness of the API.

For information, I managed to score 0.80383 on the contest.