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Fitting power-law distributions to empirical data, according to the method of Clauset, Shalizi and Newman
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Fitting power-law distributions to empirical data

Author: Tamas Nepusz
Build status:Build status on Travis

This program fits power-law distributions to empirical (discrete or continuous) data, according to the method of Clauset, Shalizi and Newman [1].


You only need a recent C compiler (e.g., gcc), CMake and make to compile the main executable. If you also want to compile the Python module with the same functionality, you will also need SWIG.

It is possible (although a bit more complicated) to compile the program and the Python module without CMake or make; see the Compiling without CMake or make section below.


Compiling with CMake

This is easy. Assuming that you have downloaded the source code already, just do this from the command line:

$ mkdir build
$ cd build
$ cmake ..
$ make

If you have permission to write in /usr/local, you can also invoke make install at this point, which will place the executable in /usr/local/bin. Adjusting CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX using ccmake will let you install plfit in a different folder.

The above code snippet compiles the main executable (plfit) but not the Python module. If you need the Python module as well, the dance goes like this:

$ mkdir build
$ cd build
$ cmake ..
$ ccmake .
[ccmake starts up; set the PLFIT_COMPILE_PYTHON_MODULE variable to ON]
$ make

Compiling without CMake or make

CMake is the preferred way to build plfit; however, those who do not want to install CMake may rest assured that it is possible to compile plfit without CMake as well.

plfit consists of two separate executables: plfit itself, which implements the power-law fitting procedure, and plgen, which generates random data according to some power-law distribution. The two executables are compiled nearly from the same source files; the only difference is that main.c is not needed for plgen and plgen.c is not needed for plfit.

I like to use a separate build folder for compiling stuff, so we start again by creating one:

$ mkdir build
$ cd build

Now we simply compile plfit and plgen using gcc, making sure that plgen.c is excluded when we compile plfit and main.c is excluded when we compile plgen:

$ gcc -o plfit -I../src -lm `ls ../src/*.c | grep -F -v plgen.c`
$ gcc -o plgen -I../src -lm `ls ../src/*.c | grep -F -v main.c`

To build the Python interface as well, some extra legwork is needed with SWIG:

$ swig -Wall -O -python -outcurrentdir ../src/plfit.i
$ gcc -shared -fPIC -o -I../src -I/usr/include/python2.7 \
  -lm plfit_wrap.c ../src/*.c

where /usr/include/python2.7 should be replaced with the directory where the Python.h file of your Python interpreter is.

That's it. The Python interface itself consists of two files: and Both of them are to be found in the build folder.


From the command line

Prepare a data file consisting of your input data, one number (i.e. sample) per line. So, for instance, if you want to find out whether the degrees of some graph follow a power-law distribution or not, just dump the degrees into the input file, one vertex per line. If you are interested in whether the magnitude of earthquakes follow a power-law, dump the magnitudes into the input file, one earthquake per line. There is no need to calculate the cumulative distribution function or the probability density function before, nor to normalize the input data. Futhermore, inline comments using # (hash) are supported. Then simply run:

$ ./plfit input_data.txt

For some inspiration, see the sample data files under the directory data. The program will assume that the data is discrete when the file contains integers only; otherwise it will assume that the data is continuous. If your data file contains integers only but you know that they come from a continuous distribution, use -c to force continuous fitting:

$ ./plfit -c input_data.txt

The -h switch gives you a nice help message:

$ ./plfit -h

You may also ask plfit to calculate the first four moments of the input data (besides doing a regular power law fitting) using the -M switch. You can then use the values of the moments to decide whether the distribution is skewed and fat-tailed enough to be considered a "real" power-law.

plfit has two output modes: a human-readable and a brief (but easily parseable) format. By default, the results are printed in human-readable format, which looks like this:

        Central moments
        mean     =      2.71550
        variance =     43.36610 =      6.58529
        skewness =     23.30801
        kurtosis =    798.21995
        ex.kurt. =    795.21995

        Discrete MLE
        alpha =      2.58306
        xmin  =      2.00000
        L     =  -9155.61707
        D     =      0.00428
        p     =      0.99996

The moments are printed only if -M is given in the command line. The output of the brief mode (when -b is given) looks like this:

input.txt: M 2.7155 43.3661 23.308 798.22
input.txt: D 2.58306 2 -9155.62 0.00428253 0.999965

where the line containing M (i.e. the first one) lists the first four central moments (mean, variance, skewness, kurtosis) and the line containing D (for discrete data) or C (for continuous data) contains the fitted exponent, minimum X value, log-likelihood (L), Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic (D) and p-value (p). Note that the M line does not list the standard deviation (which is simply the square root of the variance) and the excess kurtosis (which is simply the kurtosis minus 3).

From Python

The Python module is just a thin wrapper around the original C calls, so take a look at plfit.h and use your instincts to figure out how the corresponding Python functions are named ;) This should get you started:

>>> import plfit
>>> data = [float(line) for line in open("input_file.txt")]
>>> plfit.plfit_discrete(data)
>>> plfit.alpha, plfit.xmin, plfit.L

You can also invoke dir(plfit) to examine the namespace of the plfit module, listing all the functions and data types. There's also a test script in test/

Using multiple CPU cores when fitting power-laws

plfit has experimental support for parallel computation on multi-core machines. This is not tested thoroughly yet, but I am using it regularly on my machine so it should be okay in general.

The default compilation settings of plfit compile the executable in sequential mode, therefore plfit will use only a single core of your machine. However, some parts of the calculation may be speeded up by distributing the work among multiple CPU cores. If you want to enable parallelized computing, launch ccmake . in the build directory, set the PLFIT_USE_OPENMP option to ON, and recompile everything by calling make. If you are compiling plfit without CMake, add the necessary compiler switch to enable OpenMP in the compiler. For gcc, you should add the -fopenmp switch, so the compiler invocation should start with gcc -fopenmp.

Theoretically, the results provided by plfit in parallelized mode should be exactly the same as the results provided in sequential mode (apart from the exact p-values of course, which tend to fluctuate between runs). If you have a dataset for which this does not hold, please file a bug report for plfit on GitHub.

Frequently asked questions

Where did the p-values go?

Before version 0.7, plfit used an approximation algorithm to calculate the p-value; this involved using the standard p-value formula of the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test with the D statistic obtained directly from comparing the fitted distribution with the empirical data. The approximation was really fast, but unfortunately its results did not match the ones based on the more exact resampling procedure reported in the original paper [1], and this has been the source of some confusion. From version 0.7, plfit is able to perform the same p-value estimation procedure from [1], but it is quite time-consuming, especially for continuous data where there are a lot of possible lower cutoff thresholds to try, since plfit has to fit power-laws to about 2500 additional synthetic datasets in order to get a reasonable estimate on the p-value that is more or less accurate to the second decimal digit. So, the bottom line is that the approximation is fast but inaccurate, and the exact calculation is slow. Since I still want to pretend that plfit is snappy, I decided not to calculate the p-value by default. If you want the p-value, you have to add -p exact or -p approximate to the command line options of plfit, depending on whether you prefer the exact value or the approximation that was used in plfit 0.6 or earlier.

I am getting different p-values every time I run the algorithm

I assume that you are calculating the exact p-value (i.e. you use -p exact). This is normal; the algorithm simply generates 2500 synthetic data sets with the fitted exponent and cutoff, repeats the whole fitting procedure on the synthetic data, and counts how many times the synthetic D-score is above the D-score of the original fit. The fraction of the synthetic datasets with a D-score higher than the D-score of the original fit then gives us the p-value. Of course there is quite a bit of randomness involved, so the estimated p-value will be different every time, but the first two decimal digits should be stable. If you want to make the procedure fully deterministic, you have to pre-seed the random number generator with an arbitrary integer using the -s switch.

I want more accurate p-values!

Sure, if you have plenty of time, plfit will allow you to do that. Just use the -e switch with your required precision (e.g., 0.01 will give you a p-value that is accurate up to the second decimal digit), and of course don't forget to add -p exact, otherwise -e will not do anything at all. For a given precision eps, plfit will use 1 / (4 * eps^2) iterations, so be prepared for a long wait when eps is small. When multiple CPU cores are available and plfit was compiled with OpenMP (see Using multiple CPU cores when fitting power-laws), the calculation will be parallelized, but it will still take quite a bit of time.


[1](1, 2, 3) Clauset A, Shalizi CR and Newman MEJ: Power-law distributions in empirical data. SIAM Review 51, 661-703 (2009).
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