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Kaggle competition: Caterpillar Tube Pricing
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Kaggle Caterpillar Tube Pricing Challenge

This repo contains my solution to the Caterpillar Tube Pricing Kaggle competition, as well as all the exploration code that I produced along the way. I finished with a score of 0.211679 on the private leaderboard, ranking #31 out of 1323 participating teams (top 3%), or #13 among individual participants.

The main solution code is in soln/, and the exploratory IPython notebooks are in exploration/. My final model was a bagged ensemble of xgboost tree models, as detailed under "Bagging experiment" below. The rest of this file describes my approach to the competition, and other ideas that I've tried but that did not make it into the final model. I am assuming familiarity with the competition setup, error metric, and data.

Cross-validation approach

I split the training set into K=10 folds for cross validation.

Because of bracket pricing, the training set can have multiple rows for the same tube_assembly_id. However, the tube_assembly_ids in the training set and the test set are disjoint. To preserve this in my K-fold split, I split the unique tube_assembly_ids into K folds, instead of splitting the rows into K folds.

I also noticed that the histogram of the supplier column in the test set closely matched the histogram of the same column in the training set. To preserve this in my K-fold split, I stratified by supplier. The code for all this can be found in the add_dev_fold_column function in soln/

It paid off to do the split very carefully this way, because my cross-validation procedure gave me a good estimate of generalization error. My mean cross-validation RMSLE was 0.213 (stdev 0.017), which was very close to the final score of 0.212. In contrast, my public leaderboard score was 0.219, which was less informative. People who optimized for the public leaderboard score might have been overfitting, because my solution jumped 19 spots higher on the private leaderboard (#50 on public vs. #31 on private).

Feature engineering

The dataset came as a set of relational tables, with interesting opportunities for feature engineering. I picked all the obvious columns from train_set.csv and tube.csv, and used one-hot encoding for the categorical features. (I dropped any feature that had a support of less than min_seen_count=10 rows.)

I noticed that the min_order_quantity and quantity columns were inconsistent among different suppliers, so I defined an adjusted_quantity feature that took the max of those columns. I also added a bracketing_pattern categorical feature that captured the set of quantities for a tube_assembly_id that occurred with bracket pricing, e.g. (1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250) for TA-00222.

In addition, I extracted list-of-categoricals features for the specs in specs.csv and the components in bill_of_materials.csv. For example, TA-00015 had specs ['SP-0063', 'SP-0069', 'SP-0080'] and components ['C-0448', 'C-0448', 'C-0449', 'C-0449'] (duplicates to account for the count of each component). I converted these list-of-categorical features to integer features that count how many time each spec or component appeared in a tube assembly, and discarded any features seen less than min_seen_count times.

In addition to using the component_ids in the components feature, I added a component_types feature that stored the "type" of each component (as given by the component_type_id column, e.g. CP-028), and a component_groups feature that stored the "group" for each component (as given the csv file it came from, e.g. comp_adaptor.csv). This means that I had three layers of granularity for the component features: each component_id belonged to a component_type, and each component_type belonged to a component_group.

Not all component groups had the same columns, but using sensible defaults (e.g. False for unique_feature, zero for weight, etc), I extracted the following additional features for each tube_assembly_id:

  • unique_feature_count: number of components with unique_feature=True
  • orientation_count: number of components with orientation=True
  • groove_count: number of components with groove=True
  • total_component_weight: sum of weights of all components
  • component_end_forms: list-of-categoricals combining columns like end_form_id_1, end_form_id_2, etc.
  • component_connection_types: list-of-categoricals combining columns like end_form_id_1, end_form_id_2, etc.
  • component_part_names: list-of-categoricals combining the strings from the part_name column in comp_other.csv
  • component_max_length
  • component_max_overall_length
  • component_max_bolt_pattern_wide
  • component_max_bolt_pattern_long
  • component_max_thickness
  • component_min_thread_pitch
  • component_min_thread_size

Finally, I added a list-of-categoricals ends feature combining end_a and end_x, with the intuition being that the end forms might be interchangeable, and so their ordering might not matter. I also added a few features computed using simple physics:

  • physical_volume: length * pi * ((diameter / 2) ^ 2)
  • inner_radius: diameter / 2 - wall_thickness
  • material_volume: physical_volume - length * pi * (inner_radius ^ 2)

The code for all this can be found in soln/ My approach to testing was to sanity-check each feature as I added it, using the notebook exploration/check_featurizer.ipynb.

Choosing a model and optimizing hyperparameters

(A lower RMSLE is better. All RMSLE values here are obtained via cross validation.)

I started out by trying RandomForestRegressor and ExtraTreesRegressor from scikit-learn. I got the best results (about 0.240 RMSLE) with 100 trees of unrestricted depth, and selecting 40% of available features for each tree.

I then switched to xgboost, which immediately brought my RMSLE to 0.225 with 1000 trees. There were diminishing returns from adding more trees, with the best RMSLE of about 0.213 with 10K trees. My other parameters were: gamma = 0, eta = 0.02, max_depth = 8, min_child_weight = 6, subsample = 0.7, colsample_bytree = 0.6. I got some of these ballpark values by reading the Kaggle forums.

I also tried searching the parameter space for parameters that would lower my RMSLE. I fired up an 8-core c4.2xlarge instance on EC2, which was much faster than my dual-core laptop, since xgboost is multithreaded. (With spot pricing, I paid less than 10 cents per hour, whereas the current regular price is 44 cents per hour.) I used hyperopt to guide the search, defining appropriate ranges for the parameters I thought would be most salient (see soln/ for an example). The search did not reveal any large improvement in RMSLE, confirming that my parameter were already set pretty well.

My workflow for searching parameters involved dumping the feature matrices for the K folds to disk (soln/, so that the script performing the search (soln/ did not have to repeat the work of featurizing.

Bracketing experiment

In this experiment I tried to take advantage of the bracket-pricing structure present in the data. I noticed that a majority of the rows (58% of the training set and 58% of the test set) came from tubes with the bracketing pattern (1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250), which I will call the well-behaved bracket. All of these tubes came from supplier S-0066. For all of the tubes in the well-behaved bracket, the prices can be explained by a simple linear model:

total_cost(tube) = fixed_cost(tube) + variable_cost(tube) * quantity(tube)

where the cost column in the data is the per-unit cost, i.e. total_cost(tube) / quantity(tube). This linear relation holds with an r2 > 0.9999 for all the tubes in the well-behaved bracket. For example, for tube TA-00002:

bracket pricing figure

(A similar linear relation holds for a few other bracket patterns, but not all of them.)

Of course, the fixed_cost and variable_cost are unobserved, but they can be recovered from the training set by fitting a linear model, as illustrated above. What is more interesting is that the fixed costs for all the tubes in the well-behaved bracket cluster cleanly into four clusters:

fixed costs figure

This suggests a two-step approach: First, classify a tube into one of the four fixed-cost clusters. Second, predict the variable cost for the tube. Finally, combine these two predictions to get the final cost for any quantity. The code for this is in exploration/bracket_pricing_*.ipynb.

I built the fixed cost classifier using xgboost with a softmax objective function (four classes), and achieved an accuracy of about 94%. For the variable cost regressor, I again used xgboost, choosing to optimize the MSE of log(variable_cost + 1). This objective function is an approximation, since when we predict the variable cost separately, we are no longer directly optimizing RMSLE on the original data. (Intuitively, the same amount of error in variable_cost will contribute a different amount of error to the final RMSLE, depending on the tube's fixed_cost.)

Using this combined model, I achieved a small improvement in RMSLE for the well-behaved bracket, compared to my original scikit-learn model (which did not model bracketing separately). However, the improvement vanished when I compared against a tuned xgboost model with 10K trees. Thus, despite all this interesting structure in the data, simple boosted trees still did better than my combined modeling approach.

Component clustering experiment

In this experiment I tried to tie together the features from similar components. Of the 2047 known components, many occur in only one or two tubes. Even more alarmingly, hundreds of components occur in test set tubes but not in train set tubes, and vice versa:

test_seen_count 0..0 1..1 2..5 5..10 10..20 20..50 50..100 100..inf
0..0 346 399 81 2
1..1 407 140 83 9
2..5 111 94 112 38 2
5..10 2 5 43 37 8
10..20 13 41 2
20..50 9 23 1
50..100 3 6
100..inf 30

I reasoned that tying similar components together could alleviate this sparsity problem. I focused my investigation on components in the comp_straight.csv group, which was one of the worst offenders with regards to sparsity. The code for this is in exploration/components.ipynb and exploration/straight_cluster.ipynb. I tried three different ways to tie components together:

  • K-means clustering;
  • Agglomerative clustering, followed by extracting flat clusters;
  • Explicitly mapping uncommon component_ids to their nearest neighbor that is sufficiently common.

For each of these, I tried using the original component features + the tied component features, or only the tied component features. Despite reducing sparsity, these techniques did not give me a significant improvement in RMSLE.

Expert ensemble experiment

Early on in the competition, I noticed that I could get slightly better RMSLE by training separate models on subsets of the training set. For example, if I trained a model on all tubes from supplier 72, it would be better at predicting prices from the same supplier, than the model that was trained on data from all suppliers. I call such a model an "expert", since it specializes on a specific subset of the training set.

As a first experiment, I trained a base model on everything, and an expert model on all tubes with uncommon brackets (i.e., all tubes with a bracketing_pattern other than (1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250), (1, 6, 20), (1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20), (1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100), or (5, 19, 20)). At prediction time I used the base model or the expert model, depending on whether the instance had a common or uncommon bracketing_pattern. This gave me an improvement of about 0.0006 in RMSLE, both in my cross validation and on the public leaderboard.

As a second experiment, I trained a base model on everything, and a separate expert model for each of the five most common suppliers (66, 41, 72, 54, 26). For each of these expert models, I used cross-validation to determine whether the expert model did better than the base model. Including only the experts that beat the base model, I ended up with experts for suppliers 41, 72, and 54. This gave me a small boost in cross-validation RMSLE, but the variance was high, and my public score was worse than the base model. (As it turns out, my private score improved, but there was no way to know this until the competition was over. In any case, the uncommon-brackets expert gave an improvement that was more robust than the supplier-specific experts.)

Bagging experiment

As a final experiment, I checked whether I could improve my score using bagging. After trying a few different options, I settled on training models on 9 bags, where I obtained each bag by sampling 90% of tube_assembly_ids in the training set, without replacement. (This is not the same as taking 90% of rows; see the discussion about cross-validation earlier.) I then averaged the predictions given by the 9 models to get the final prediction. (Taking the median worked slightly worse.) This simple technique gave me a boost of 0.0008 in RMSLE over the base model with 10K trees.

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