Author: Yanir Seroussi

Aspiring data surfers

Advice for aspiring data scientists and other FAQs

Aspiring data scientists and other visitors to this site often repeat the same questions. This post is the definitive collection of my answers to such questions (which may evolve over time).

How do I become a data scientist?

It depends on your situation. Before we get into it, have you thought about why you want to become a data scientist?

Hmm… Not really. Why should I become a data scientist?

I can’t answer this for you, but it’s great to see you asking why. Do you know what data science is? Do you understand what data scientists do?

Sort of. Just so we’re on the same page, what is data science?

What are the hardest parts of data science?

Thanks, that’s helpful. But what do data scientists actually do?

It varies a lot. This variability makes the job title somewhat useless. You should try to get an idea what areas of data science interest you. For many people, excitement over the technical aspects wanes with time. And even if you still find the technical aspects exciting, most jobs have boring parts. When considering career changes, think of the non-technical aspects that would keep you engaged.

To answer the question, here are some posts on things I’ve done: Joined Automattic by improving the Elasticsearch language detection plugin, calculated customer lifetime value, analysed A/B test results, built recommender systems (including one for Bandcamp music), competed on Kaggle, and completed a PhD. I’ve also dabbled in deep learning, marine surveys, causality, and other things that I haven’t had the chance to write about.

Cool! Can you provide a general overview of how to become a data scientist?

I’m pretty happy with my current job, but still thinking of becoming a data scientist. What should I do?

Find ways of doing data science within your current role, working overtime if needed. Working on a real problem in a familiar domain is much more valuable than working on toy problems from online courses and platforms like Kaggle (though they’re also useful). If you’re a data analyst, learn how to program to automate and simplify your analyses. If you’re a software engineer, become comfortable with analysing and modelling data. Machine learning doesn’t have to be a part of what you choose to do.

I’m pretty busy. What online course should I take to learn about the area?

Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age is a good place to start. Deep learning should be pretty low on your list if you don’t have much background in the area.

Should I learn Python or R? Keras or Tensorflow? What about <insert name here>?

It doesn’t matter. Focus on principles and you’ll be fine. The following quote still applies today (to people of all genders).

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

I want to become a data science freelancer. Can you provide some advice?

As with any freelancing job, expect to spend much of your time on sales and networking. I’ve only explored the freelancing path briefly, but Radim Řehůřek has published great slides on the topic. If you’re thinking of freelancing as a way of gaining financial independence, also consider spending less, earning more, and investing wisely.

Can you recommend an academic data science degree?

Sorry, but I don’t know much about those degrees. Boris Gorelik has some interesting thoughts on studying data science.

Will you be my mentor?

Probably not, unless you’re hard-working, independent, and doing something I find interesting. Feel free to contact me if you believe we’d both find the relationship beneficial.

Can you help with my project?

Probably not, as I work full-time with Automattic. I barely have time for my side projects, and I’m not looking for more paid work. However, if you think I’d find your project exciting, please do contact me.


What about ethics?

What about them? There isn’t a single definition of right and wrong, as morality is multi-dimensional. I believe it’s important to question your own choices, and avoid applying data science blindly. For me, this means divesting from harmful industries like fossil fuels and striving to go beyond the creation of greedy robots (among other things).

I’m a manager. When should I hire a data scientist and start using machine learning?

There’s a good chance you don’t need a data scientist yet, but you should be aware of common pitfalls when trying to be data-driven. It’s also worth reading Paras Chopra’s post on what you need to know before you board the machine learning train.

Do you want to buy my products or services?

No. If I did, I’d contact you.

I have a question that isn’t answered here or anywhere on the internet, and I think you can help. Can I contact you?

My 10-step path to becoming a remote data scientist with Automattic

About two years ago, I read the book The Year without Pants, which describes the author’s experience leading a team at Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com, among other products). Automattic is a fully-distributed company, which means that all of its employees work remotely (hence pants are optional). While the book discusses some of the challenges of working remotely, the author’s general experience was very positive. A few months after reading the book, I decided to look for a full-time position after a period of independent work. Ideally, I wanted a well-paid data science-y remote job with an established distributed tech company that offers a good life balance and makes products I care about. Automattic seemed to tick all my boxes, so I decided to apply for a job with them. This post describes my application steps, which ultimately led to me becoming a data scientist with Automattic.

Before jumping in, it’s worth noting that this post describes my personal experience. If you apply for a job with Automattic, your experience is likely to be different, as the process varies across teams, and evolves over time.

📧 Step 1: Do background research and apply

I decided to apply for a data wrangler position with Automattic in October 2015. While data wrangler may sound less sexy than data scientist, reading the job ad led me to believe that the position may involve interesting data science work. This impression was strengthened by some LinkedIn stalking, which included finding current data wranglers and reading through their profiles and websites. I later found out that all the people on the data division start out as data wranglers, and then they may pick their own title. Some data wranglers do data science work, while others are more focused on data engineering, and there are some projects that require a broad range of skills. As the usefulness of the term data scientist is questionable, I’m not too fussed about fancy job titles. It’s more important to do interesting work in a supportive environment.

Applying for the job was fairly straightforward. I simply followed the instructions from the ad:

Does this sound interesting? If yes, please send a short email to jobs @ this domain telling us about yourself and attach a resumé. Let us know what you can contribute to the team. Include the title of the position you’re applying for and your name in the subject. Proofread! Make sure you spell and capitalize WordPress and Automattic correctly. We are lucky to receive hundreds of applications for every position, so try to make your application stand out. If you apply for multiple positions or send multiple emails there will be one reply.

Having been on the receiving side of job applications, I find it surprising that many people don’t bother writing a cover letter, addressing the selection criteria in the ad, or even applying for a job they’re qualified to do. Hence, my cover letter was fairly short, comprising of several bullet points that highlight the similarities between the job requirements and my experience. It was nothing fancy, but simple cover letters have worked well for me in the past.

⏳ Step 2: Wait patiently

The initial application was followed by a long wait. From my research, this is the typical scenario. This is unsurprising, as Automattic is a fairly small company with a large footprint, which is both distributed and known as a great place to work (e.g., its Glassdoor rating is 4.9). Therefore, it attracts many applicants from all over the world, which take a while to process. In addition, Matt Mullenweg (Automattic’s CEO) reviews job applications before passing them on to the team leads.

As I didn’t know that Matt reviewed job applications, I decided to try to shorten the wait by getting introduced to someone in the data division. My first attempt was via a second-degree LinkedIn connection who works for Automattic. He responded quickly when I reached out to him, saying that his experience working with the company is in line with the Glassdoor reviews – it’s the best job he’s had in his 15-year-long career. However, he couldn’t help me with an intro, because there is no simple way around Automattic’s internal processes. Nonetheless, he reassured me that it is worth waiting patiently, as the strict process means that you end up working with great people.

I wasn’t in a huge rush to find a job, but in December 2015 I decided to accept an offer to become the head of data science at Car Next Door. This was a good decision at the time, as I believe in the company’s original vision of reducing the number of cars on the road through car sharing, and it seemed like there would be many interesting projects for me to work on. The position wasn’t completely remote, but as the company was already spread across several cities, I was able to work from home for a day or two every week. In addition, it was a pleasant commute by bike from my Sydney home to the office, so putting the fully-remote job search on hold didn’t seem like a major sacrifice. As I haven’t heard anything from Automattic at that stage, it seemed unwise to reject a good offer, so I started working full-time with Car Next Door in January 2016.

I successfully attracted Automattic’s attention with a post I published on the misuse of the word insights by many tech companies, which included an example from WordPress.com. Greg Ichneumon Brown, one of the data wranglers, commented on the post, and invited me to apply to join Automattic and help them address the issues I raised. This happened after I accepted the offer from Car Next Door, and hasn’t resulted in any speed up of the process, so I just gave up on Automattic and carried on with my life.

💬 Step 3: Chat with the data lead

I finally heard back from Automattic in February 2016 (four months after my initial application and a month into my employment with Car Next Door). Martin Remy, who leads the data division, emailed me to enquire if I’m still interested in the position. I informed him that I was no longer looking for a job, but we agreed to have an informal chat, as I’ve been waiting for such a long time.

As is often the case with Automattic interviews, the chat with Martin was completely text-based. Working with a distributed team means that voice and video calls can be hard to schedule. Hence, Automattic relies heavily on textual channels, and text-based interviews allow the company to test the written communication skills of candidates. The chat revolved around my past work experience, and Martin also took the time to answer my questions about the company and the data division. At the conclusion of the chat, Martin suggested I contact him directly if I was ever interested in continuing the application process. While I was happy with my position at the time, the chat strengthened my positive impression of Automattic, and I decided that I would reapply if I were to look for a full-time position again.

My next job search started earlier than I had anticipated. In October 2016, I decided to leave Car Next Door due to disagreements with the founders over the general direction of the company. In addition, I had more flexibility in choosing where to live, as my personal circumstances had changed. As I’ve always been curious about life outside the capital cities of Australia, I wanted to move away from Sydney. While I could have probably continued working remotely with Car Next Door, I felt that it would be better to find a job with a fully-distributed team. Therefore, I messaged Martin and we scheduled another chat.

The second chat with Martin took place in early November. Similarly to the first chat, it was conducted via Skype text messages, and revolved around my work in the time that has passed since the first chat. This time, as I was keen on continuing with the process, I asked more specific questions about what kind of work I’m likely to end up doing and what the next steps would be. The answers were that I’d be joining the data science team, and that the next steps are a pre-trial test, a paid trial, and a final interview with Matt. While this sounds straightforward, it took another six months until I finally became an Automattic employee (but I wasn’t in a rush).

☑️ Step 4: Pass the pre-trial test

The pre-trial test consisted of a data analysis task, where I was given a dataset and a set of questions to answer by Carly Stambaugh, the data science lead. The goal of the test is to evaluate the candidate’s approach to a problem, and assess organisational and communication skills. As such, the focus isn’t on obtaining a specific result, so candidates are given a choice of several potential avenues to explore. The open-ended nature of the task is reminiscent of many real-world data science projects, where you don’t always have a clear idea of what you’re going to discover. While some people may find this kind of uncertainty daunting, I find it interesting, as it is one of the things that makes data science a science.

I spent a few days analysing the data and preparing a report, which was submitted as a Jupyter Notebook. After submitting my initial report, there were a few follow-up questions, which I answered by email. The report was reviewed by Carly and Martin, and as they were satisfied with my work, I was invited to proceed to the next stage: A paid trial project.

👨‍💻 Step 5: Do the trial project

The main part of the application process with Automattic is the paid trial project. The rationale behind doing paid trials was explained a few years ago by Matt in Hire by Auditions, Not Resumes:

Before we hire anyone, they go through a trial process first, on contract. They can do the work at night or over the weekend, so they don’t have to leave their current job in the meantime. We pay a standard rate of $25 per hour, regardless of whether you’re applying to be an engineer or the chief financial officer.

During the trials, we give the applicants actual work. If you’re applying to work in customer support, you’ll answer tickets. If you’re an engineer, you’ll work on engineering problems. If you’re a designer, you’ll design.

There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day. It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews, or reference checks. At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.

The goal of my trial project was to improve the Elasticsearch language detection algorithm. This took about a month, and ultimately resulted in a pull request that got merged into the language detection plugin. I find this aspect of the process pretty exciting: While the plugin is used to classify millions of documents internally by Automattic, its impact extends beyond the company, as Elasticsearch is used by many other organisations and projects. This stands in contrast to many other technical job interviews, which consist of unpaid work on toy problems under stressful conditions, where the work performed is ultimately thrown away. While the monetary compensation for the trial work is lower than the market rate for data science consulting, I valued the opportunity to work on a real open source project, even if this hadn’t led to me getting hired.

There was much more to the trial project than what’s shown in the final pull request. Most of the discussions were held on an internal project thread, primarly under the guidance of Carly (the data science lead), and Greg (the data wrangler who replied to my post a year earlier). The project was kicked off with a general problem statement: There was some evidence that the Elasticsearch language detection plugin doesn’t perform well on short texts, and my mission was to improve it. As the plugin didn’t include any tests for short texts, one of the main contributions of my work was the creation of datasets and tests to measure its accuracy on texts of different lengths. This was followed by some tweaks that improved the plugin’s performance, as summarised in the pull request. Internally, this work consisted of several iterations where I came up with ideas, asked questions, implemented the ideas, shared the results, and discussed further steps. There are still many possible improvements to the work done in the trial. However, as trials generally last around a month, we decided to end it after a few iterations.

I enjoyed the trial process, but it is definitely not for everyone. Most notably, there is a strong emphasis on asynchronous text-based communication, which is the main mode by which projects are coordinated at Automattic. People who don’t enjoy written communication may find this aspect challenging, but I have always found that writing helps me organise my thoughts, and that I retain information better when reading than when listening to people speak. That being said, Automatticians do meet in person several times a year, and some teams have video chats for some discussions. While doing the trial, I had a video chat with Carly, which was the first (and last) time in the process that I got to see and hear a live human. However, this was not an essential part of the trial project, as our chat was mostly on the data scientist role and my job expectations.

⏳ Step 6: Wait patiently

I finished working on the trial project just before Christmas. The feedback I received throughout the trial was positive, but Martin, Carly, and Greg had to go through the work and discuss it among themselves before making a final decision. This took about a month, due to the holiday period, various personal circumstances, and the data science team meetup that was scheduled for January 2017. Eventually, Martin got back to me with positive news: They were satisfied with my trial work, which meant there was only one stage left – the final interview with Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s CEO.

👉 Step 7: Ping Matt

Like other parts of the process, the interview with Matt is text-based. The way it works is fairly simple: I was instructed to message Matt on Slack and wait for a response, which may take days or weeks. I sent Matt a message on January 25, and was surprised to hear back from him the following morning. However, that day was Australia Day, which is a public holiday here. Therefore, I only got back to him two hours after he messaged me that morning, and by that time he was probably already busy with other things. This was the start of a pretty long wait.

⏳ Step 8: Wait patiently

I left Car Next Door at the end of January, as I figured that I would be able to line up some other work even if things didn’t work out with Automattic. My plan was to take some time off, and then move up to the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. I had two Reef Life Survey trips planned, so I wasn’t going to start working again before mid-April. I assumed that I would hear back from Matt before then, which would have allowed me to make an informed decision whether to look for another job or not.

After two weeks of waiting, the time for my dive trips was nearing. As I was going to be without mobile reception for a while, I thought it’d be worth letting Matt know my schedule. After discussing the matter with Martin, I messaged Matt. He responded, saying that we might as well do the interview at the beginning of April, as I won’t be starting work before that time anyway. I would have preferred to be done with the interview earlier, but was happy to have some certainty and not worry about missing more chat messages before April.

In early April, I returned from my second dive trip (which included a close encounter with Cyclone Debbie), and was hoping to sort out my remote work situation while completing the move up north. Unfortunately, while the move was successful, I was ready to give up on Automattic because I haven’t heard back from Matt at all in April. However, Martin remained optimistic and encouraged me to wait patiently, which I did as I was pretty busy with the move and with some casual freelancing projects.

💬 Step 9: Chat with Matt and accept the job offer

The chat with Matt finally happened on May 2. As is often the case, it took a few hours and covered my background, the trial process, and some other general questions. I asked him about my long wait for the final chat, and he apologised for me being an outlier, as most chats happen within two weeks of a candidate being passed over to him. As the chat was about to conclude, we got to the topic of salary negotiation (which went well), and then the process was finally over! Within a few hours of the chat I was sent an offer letter and an employment contract. As Automattic has an entity in Australia (called Ausomattic), it’s a fairly standard contract. I signed the contract and started work the following week – over a year and a half after my initial application. Even before I started working, I booked tickets to meet the data division in Montréal – a fairly swift transition from the long wait for the final interview.

🎉 Step 10: Start working and choose a job title

As noted above, Automatticians get to choose their own job titles, so to become a data scientist with Automattic, I had to set my job title to Data Scientist. This is generally how many people become data scientists these days, even outside Automattic. However, job titles don’t matter as much as job satisfaction. And after 2.5 months with Automattic, I’m very satisfied with my decision to join the company. My first three weeks were spent doing customer support, like all new Automattic employees. Since then, I’ve been involved in projects to make engagement measurement more consistent (harder than it sounds, as counting things is hard), and to improve the data science codebase (e.g., moving away from Legacy Python). Besides that, I also went to Montréal for the data division meetup, and have started getting into chatbot work. I’m looking forward to doing more work and sharing my experience here and on data.blog.

Reef Life Survey Frequency Explorer screenshot

Exploring and visualising reef life survey data

Last year, I wrote about the Reef Life Survey (RLS) project and my experience with offline data collection on the Great Barrier Reef. I found that using auto-generated flashcards with an increasing level of difficulty is a good way to memorise marine species. Since publishing that post, I have improved the flashcards and built a tool for exploring the aggregate survey data. Both tools are now publicly available on the RLS website. This post describes the tools and their implementation, and outlines possible directions for future work.

The tools

Each tool is fairly simple and focused on helping users achieve a small set of tasks. The best way to get familiar with the tools is to play with them by following the links below. If you’re only interested in using the tools, you can stop reading after this section. The rest of this post describes the data behind the tools, and some technical implementation details.

Reef Life Survey Frequency Explorer screenshot

The Frequency Explorer tool lets users select RLS sites and view the species that have been recorded there (RLS website | full-screen version).

Reef Life Survey Flashcards screenshot

The Flashcards tool helps users memorise the names of marine species by showing random images of species from a chosen area (RLS website | full-screen version).

The data

The RLS database includes data collected by volunteer scuba divers on the diversity and abundance of marine life in sites around the world. An RLS survey is performed along a 50 metre tape, which is laid at a constant depth following a reef’s contour. After laying the tape, one diver takes photos of the bottom at 2.5 metre intervals along the transect line. These photos are analysed later to classify the type of substrate or growth (e.g., hard coral or sand). Divers then complete two swims along each side of the transect. On the first swim (method 1), divers record all the fish species and large swimming animals found in a 5 metre corridor from the line. The second swim (method 2) targets invertebrates and cryptic animals, and requires keeping closer to the bottom and looking under ledges and vegetation in a 1 metre corridor from the line. The RLS manual includes all the details on how surveys are performed. The data collected in the surveys is available for download from a Data Portal hosted by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. As of early June 2017, the downloadable dataset consists of over half a million data points from almost ten thousand surveys.

When I first started studying marine species, I had to find a source for photos. Initially, I used Scrapy to build simple scrapers that downloaded photos from sites such as The Australian Museum, Fishbase, and Fishes of Australia. Last year, RLS made a large number of high-quality photos taken by volunteers available on their site (via the Species Search function). In addition to their high quality, an advantage of the RLS photos over images from other sources is that they were all taken in situ, i.e., in each animal’s natural habitat. On the other hand, other sites also include photos of dissections and hand-drawn illustrations, which aren’t as useful for divers who want to see marine animals as they appear in the wild. Working exclusively with the RLS image dataset has significantly improved the appearance and usefulness of the tools I built.

The raw RLS survey data comes in the form of over 100MB of CSV files. For the purpose of building the tools, I summarised the data into two JSON files with an overall size of less than 3MB (less than 1MB when compressed). This made it possible to implement both tools as single-page apps that don’t require any requests to the server after the initial fetching of the data. The two summary JSONs are:

  • species.json – a mapping from species ID to an array of five elements: scientific name, common name, species page URL, survey method (0: method 1, 1: method 2, or 2: both), and images (array of URLs).
  • site-surveys.json – a mapping from site code to an array of seven elements: realm, ecoregion, site name, longitude, latitude, number of surveys, and species counts (mapping from each observed species ID to the number of surveys on which it was seen).

Both files use mappings to arrays rather than nested objects to reduce the download size. I originally created the files myself by downloading the CSVs from the data portal and scraping the RLS website for images and common names. Static versions of those files from early June 2017 can be found on GitHub (species.json and site-surveys.json). As part of the integration with the RLS website, the RLS developers will implement live versions of the files, which will get updated automatically. I’ll add the links to the live versions when they become available. Please let me or the RLS team know if you find any issues with the data.

The approach I chose to produce the species counts in site-surveys.json doesn’t take abundance into account, i.e., each species is counted once per survey regardless of the number of times it was seen on the survey. Ignoring abundance means that for sites with few surveys, the species count may not be a good indicator of future likelihood of occurrence. For example, some fish are solitary and seen rarely, while others occur in schools and are likely to be seen on every survey. However, this is less of an issue for sites with many surveys. In addition, this simple counting approach is easier to explain than some approaches that do account for abundance.

Implementation details

The source code for the tools can be found in my GitHub Pages repository. Each tool is a simple single-page application, consisting of three files: index.jade, main.coffee, and style.less. In addition, the root source directory contains some common code in common.less and util.coffee, as well as configuration files for npm and Grunt. Grunt is used to compile the source files from Jade/Pug, CoffeeScript, and Less to HTML, JS, and CSS respectively. These files are then served statically by GitHub Pages.

The common CoffeeScript code loads the JSONs asynchronously, and processes them into nested mappings that are easier to work with than arrays. In addition, the common code contains a method to summarise counts from multiple sites, by aggregating them as simple sums. This means that sites that are surveyed more frequently get weighted more heavily. For example, if a certain fish X was seen once in site A, twice in site B, and never in site C, its count across A, B, and C is 1 + 2 + 0 = 3, but if A was surveyed once, B was surveyed twice, and C was surveyed seven times, X’s aggregate frequency is 3 / (1 + 2 + 7) = 30%. In the future, it may be worth normalising each site’s species counts by the number of times the site was surveyed (making X’s aggregate frequency (1 / 1 + 2 / 2 + 0 / 7) / 3 = 66.67%), but then rare species in rarely-surveyed sites may be overweighted.

The Frequency Explorer tool uses the Google Maps API to show a map with all the past survey sites. Users can select sites by drawing an area on the map, or by searching for site names in a Select2 box. The tool fails gracefully when Google Maps isn’t available, which makes it possible to run it offline (assuming you have local copies of the species images). This was very useful on my last trip to the Coral Sea, where I was away from mobile reception for weeks. When sites are selected, the code generates a summary table of the species frequencies, which can be exported to a dynamically-generated CSV. In addition, users can choose to display images of all the species in the table. As this can trigger the download of thousands of images, I used vanilla-lazyload to only load images when they enter the viewport. Finally, Frequency Explorer can also be used as a site selector for the Flashcards tool, as it contains a link to launch Flashcards with the set of selected sites (which is passed in the Flashcards query string).

The Flashcards tool relies on the excellent reveal.js library to dynamically generate a presentation with a random subset of images of species that were recorded at the selected sites. The presentation consists of pairs of image and name slides – each image slide is followed by a slide where the name of the previously-shown animal is revealed. As I found that trying to memorise all the species at once is too hard, I added the ability to adjust the difficulty level of the flashcards by setting a frequency threshold (e.g., show only species that were recorded on 25% of surveys), or by focusing on observations from a single survey method (e.g., method 2 surveys in the tropics tend to be much less diverse than method 1 surveys). To avoid reloading the entire page when the settings change, the slides are regenerated dynamically. Reveal isn’t really built to account for dynamic regeneration of slides, so I had to add a call to Reveal.toggleOverview(false) to get the cards to refresh correctly, but other than that it worked perfectly.

Future work

There are several possible extensions to the work done so far.

First, the integration of the tools into the RLS website is incomplete. They are still served in iframes from my GitHub Pages account, and the JSON data isn’t updated automatically. Completing the integration is dependent on the RLS developers, who also have other priorities. Other RLS-dependent items include better optimisation of images (they’re currently scaled down on the client side), and general performance improvements to the site.

Second, the tools themselves could be improved. For example, reliance on third-party libraries should be reduced (e.g., Frequency Explorer uses Bootstrap due to my limited design skills), and it’d be nice if site selections were stored and read from the URL of Frequency Explorer (this is already done for Flashcards). In addition, as the tools are used to train new RLS divers, it’d be useful to extend the Flashcards tool to run in test mode, where users would type in the names of the animals rather than just passively scroll through the presentation. This would make it possible to assess diver readiness to perform surveys based on their test scores.

Finally, many other interesting things can be done with the RLS data (in addition to producing scientific papers and reports, which is the main focus of the researchers behind the project). Examples include using the images to automate species identification (as discussed more thoroughly in my previous post on the topic), and building models to predict survey output and detect anomalies (e.g., due to climate change or other unusual factors). If you have other ideas, or end up playing with the data and coming with interesting results, please share your findings in the comments section.

Propaganda graffiti

Customer lifetime value and the proliferation of misinformation on the internet

Suppose you work for a business that has paying customers. You want to know how much money your customers are likely to spend to inform decisions on customer acquisition and retention budgets. You’ve done a bit of research, and discovered that the figure you want to calculate is commonly called the customer lifetime value. You google the term, and end up on a page with ten results (and probably some ads). How many of those results contain useful, non-misleading information? As of early 2017, fewer than half. Why is that? How can it be that after nearly 20 years of existence, Google still surfaces misleading information for common search terms? And how can you calculate your customer lifetime value correctly, avoiding the traps set up by clever search engine marketers? Read on to find out!

Background: Misleading search results and fake news

While Google tries to filter obvious spam from its index, it still relies to a great extent on popularity to rank search results. Popularity is a function of inbound links (weighted by site credibility), and of user interaction with the presented results (e.g., time spent on a result page before moving on to the next result or search). There are two obvious problems with this approach. First, there are no guarantees that wrong, misleading, or inaccurate pages won’t be popular, and therefore earn high rankings. Second, given Google’s near-monopoly of the search market, if a page ranks highly for popular search terms, it is likely to become more popular and be seen as credible. Hence, when searching for the truth, it’d be wise to follow Abraham Lincoln’s famous warning not to trust everything you read on the internet.

Abraham Lincoln internet quote

Google is not alone in helping spread misinformation. Following Donald Trump’s recent victory in the US presidential election, many people have blamed Facebook for allowing so-called fake news to be widely shared. Indeed, any popular media outlet or website may end up spreading misinformation, especially if – like Facebook and Google – it mainly aggregates and amplifies user-generated content. However, as noted by John Herrman, the problem is much deeper than clearly-fabricated news stories. It is hard to draw the lines between malicious spread of misinformation, slight inaccuracies, and plain ignorance. For example, how would one classify Trump’s claims that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese? Should Twitter block his account for knowingly spreading outright lies?

Wrong customer value calculation by example

Fortunately, when it comes to customer lifetime value, I doubt that any of the top results returned by Google is intentionally misleading. This is a case where inaccuracies and misinformation result from ignorance rather than from malice. However, relying on such resources without digging further is just as risky as relying on pure fabrications. For example, see this infographic by Kissmetrics, which suggests three different formulas for calculating the average lifetime value of a Starbucks customer. Those three formulas yield very different values ($5,489, $11,535, and $25,272), which the authors then say should be averaged to yield the final lifetime value figure. All formulas are based on numbers that the authors call constants, despite the fact that numbers such as the average customer lifespan or retention rate are clearly not constant in this context (since they’re estimated from the data and used as projections into the future). Indeed, several people have commented on the flaws in Kissmetrics’ approach, which is reminiscent of the Dilbert strip where the pointy-haired boss asks Dilbert to average and multiply wrong data.

Dilbert: average and multiply wrong data

My main problem with the Kissmetrics infographic is that it helps feed an illusion of understanding that is prevalent among those with no statistical training. As the authors fail to acknowledge the fact that the predictions produced by the formulas are inaccurate, they may cause managers and marketers to believe that they know the lifetime value of their customers. However, it’s important to remember that all models are wrong (but some models are useful), and that the lifetime value of active customers is unknowable since it involves forecasting of uncertain quantities. Hence, it is reckless to encourage people to use the Kissmetrics formulas without trying to quantify how wrong they may be on the specific dataset they’re applied to.

Fader and Hardie: The voice of reason

Notably, the work of Peter Fader and Bruce Hardie on customer lifetime value isn’t directly referenced on the first page of Google results. This is unfortunate, as they have gone through the effort of making their models accessible to people with no academic background, e.g., using Excel spreadsheets and YouTube videos. However, it is clear that they are not optimising for search engine rankings, as I found out about their work by adding search terms that the average marketer is unlikely to use (e.g., Python and Bayesian). While surveying Fader and Hardie’s large body of work is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth summarising their criticism of the lifetime value formula that is taught in introductory marketing courses.

The formula discussed by Fader and Hardie is CLV = \sum_{t=0}^{T} m \frac{r^t}{(1 + d)^t}, where m is the net cash flow per period, r is the retention rate, d is the discount rate, and T is the time horizon. The five issues that Fader and Hardie identify are as follows.

  1. The true lifetime value is unknown while the customer is still active, so the formula is actually for the expected lifetime value, i.e., E(CLV).
  2. Since the summation is bounded, the formula isn’t really for the lifetime value – it is an estimate of value up to period T (which may still be useful).
  3. As the summation starts at t=0, it gives the expected value of a customer that hasn’t been acquired yet. According to Fader and Hardie, in some cases the formula starts at t=1, i.e., it applies only to existing customers. The distinction between the two cases isn’t always made clear.
  4. The formula assumes a constant retention rate. However, it is often the case that retention increases with tenure, i.e., customers who have been with the company for a long time are less likely to churn than recently-acquired customers.
  5. It isn’t always possible to calculate a retention rate, as the point at which a customer churns isn’t observed for many products. For example, Starbucks doesn’t know whether customers who haven’t made a purchase for a while have decided to never visit Starbucks again, or whether they’re just going through a period of inactivity. Further, given the ubiquity of Starbucks, it is probably safe to assume that all past customers have a non-zero probability of making another purchase (unless they’re physically dead).

According to Fader and Hardie, “the bottom line is that there is no ‘one formula’ that can be used to compute customer lifetime value“. Therefore, teaching the above formula (or one of its variants) misleads people into thinking that they know how to calculate the lifetime value of customers. Hence, they advocate going back to the definition of lifetime value as “the present value of the future cashflows attributed to the customer relationship“, and using a probabilistic approach to generate estimates of the expected lifetime value for each customer. This conclusion also appears in a more accessible series of blog posts by Custora, where it is claimed that probabilistic modelling can yield significantly more accurate estimates than naive formulas.

Getting serious with the lifetimes package

As mentioned above, Fader and Hardie provide Excel implementations of some of their models, which produce individual-level lifetime value predictions. While this is definitely an improvement over using general formulas, better solutions are available if you can code (or have access to people who can do coding for you). For example, using a software package makes it easy to integrate the lifetime value calculation into a live product, enabling automated interventions to increase revenue and profit (among other benefits). According to Roberto Medri, this approach is followed by Etsy, where lifetime value predictions are used to retain customers and increase their value.

An example of a software package that I can vouch for is the Python lifetimes package, which implements several probabilistic models for lifetime value prediction in a non-contractual setting (i.e., where churn isn’t observed – as in the Starbucks example above). This package is maintained by Cameron Davidson-Pilon of Shopify, who may be known to some readers from his Bayesian Methods for Hackers book and other Python packages. I’ve successfully used the package on a real dataset and have contributed some small fixes and improvements. The documentation on GitHub is quite good, so I won’t repeat it here. However, it is worth reiterating that as with any predictive model, it is important to evaluate performance on your own dataset before deciding to rely on the package’s predictions. If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be the reminder that it is unwise to blindly accept any formula or model. The models implemented in the package (some of which were introduced by Fader and Hardie) are fairly simple and generally applicable, as they rely only on the past transaction log. These simple models are known to sometimes outperform more complex models that rely on richer data, but this isn’t guaranteed to happen on every dataset. My untested feeling is that in situations where clean and relevant training data is plentiful, models that use other features in addition to those extracted from the transaction log would outperform the models provided by the lifetimes package (if you have empirical evidence that supports or refutes this assumption, please let me know).

If you don't test your models, you're gonna have a bad time

Conclusion: You’re better than that

Accurate estimation of customer lifetime value is crucial to most businesses. It informs decisions on customer acquisition and retention, and getting it wrong can drive a business from profitability to insolvency. The rise of data science increases the availability of statistical and scientific tools to small and large businesses. Hence, there are few reasons why a revenue-generating business should rely on untested customer value formulas rather than on more realistic models. This extends beyond customer value to nearly every business endeavour: Relying on fabrications is not a sustainable growth strategy, there is no way around learning how to be intelligently driven by data, and no amount of cheap demagoguery and misinformation can alter the objective reality of our world.

Ask Why! Finding motives, causes, and purpose in data science

Some people equate predictive modelling with data science, thinking that mastering various machine learning techniques is the key that unlocks the mysteries of the field. However, there is much more to data science than the What and How of predictive modelling. I recently gave a talk where I argued the importance of asking Why, touching on three different topics: stakeholder motives, cause-and-effect relationships, and finding a sense of purpose. A video of the talk is available below. Unfortunately, the videographer mostly focused on me pacing rather than on the screen, but you can check out the slides here (note that you need to use both the left/right and up/down arrows to see all the slides).

If you’re interested in the topics covered in the talk, here are a few posts you should read.

Stakeholders and their motives

Causality and experimentation

Purpose, ethics, and my personal path

Cover image: Why by Ksayer

cliff

If you don’t pay attention, data can drive you off a cliff

You’re a hotshot manager. You love your dashboards and you keep your finger on the beating pulse of the business. You take pride in using data to drive your decisions rather than shooting from the hip like one of those old-school 1950s bosses. This is the 21st century, and data is king. You even hired a sexy statistician or data scientist, though you don’t really understand what they do. Never mind, you can proudly tell all your friends that you are leading a modern data-driven team. Nothing can go wrong, right? Incorrect. If you don’t pay attention, data can drive you off a cliff. This article discusses seven of the ways this can happen. Read on to ensure it doesn’t happen to you.

1. Pretending uncertainty doesn’t exist

Last month, your favourite metric was 5.2%. This month, it’s 5.5%. Looks like things are getting better – you must be doing something right! But is 5.5% really different from 5.2%? All things being equal, you should expect some variability in most of your metrics. The values you see are drawn from a distribution of possible values, which means you can’t be certain what value you’ll be seeing next. Fortunately, with more data you would be able to quantify this uncertainty and know which values are more likely. Don’t fear or ignore uncertainty. Embrace and study it, and you’ll be on the right track.

2. Confusing observed and unobserved quantities

Everyone agrees that the future is uncertain. We can generate forecasts with varying degrees of confidence, but we never know for sure what’s going to happen. However, some people tend to ignore uncertainty in forecasts, treating the unobserved future values as comparable to observed present values. For example, marketers often compare customer lifetime value with the cost of acquiring a customer. The problem is that customer lifetime value relies on a prediction of the net profit from a customer (so it’s largely unobserved and uncertain), while the business has much more control and certainty around the cost of acquiring a customer (though it’s not completely known). Treating the two values as if they’re observed and known is risky, as it can lead to major financial losses.

3. Thinking that your data is correct

Dilbert: average and multiply wrong data

Ask anyone who works with data, and they’ll tell you that it’s always messy. A well-known saying among data scientists is that 80% of the work is data cleaning and the other 20% is complaining about data cleaning. Hence, it’s likely that at least some of the figures you’re relying on to make decisions are somewhat inaccurate. However, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t make the data completely useless. But if something looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Finally, it’s highly unlikely that the data is always correct when you like the results and always incorrect when the results aren’t favourable, so don’t use the “guy on the internet said our data isn’t 100% correct” excuse to push back on inconvenient truths.

4. Believing that your data is complete

iceberg

No matter how big you are, your data doesn’t capture everything your customers do. Even Google and the NSA don’t have a full view of what people are up to in the non-digital world, and they can’t completely read our minds (yet). Most businesses have much less data than the big tech companies, and they look a bit silly trying to explain customer behaviour using only the data they have. At the end of the day, you have to work with the data you can access, but never underestimate the effectiveness of obtaining more (relevant) data.

5. Measuring the wrong thing

Maybe you recently read an article emphasising the importance of real metrics, like daily active users, as opposed to vanity metrics like number of signups to your service. You therefore decide to track the daily active users of your product. But have you thought about whether this metric is relevant to what you’re trying to achieve? If you run a business like Airbnb, where transactions are inherently infrequent, do you really care if people don’t regularly log in? You probably don’t, as long as they use the product when they actually need it. Measuring and trying to optimise the wrong thing can be very risky. Indeed, deciding on metrics and their measurement can be seen as the hardest parts of data science.

6. Not recognising your unconscious incompetence

To quote Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” Not recognising the extent of your ignorance when it comes to data is pretty common among those with no training in the field, which may lead to illusory superiority. This may be exacerbated by the fact that those who do know what they’re doing tend to talk a lot about uncertainty and how there are many things that are simply unknowable. My hope is that this short article would help people graduate from unconscious incompetence, where you don’t even recognise the importance of what you don’t know, to conscious incompetence, where you recognise the need to learn and rely on expert advice.

7. Ignoring expert advice

Hal Varian sexy statistician quote

Once you’ve recognised your skill gaps, you may decide to hire a data scientist to help you get more value out of your data. However, despite the hype, data scientists are not magicians. In fact, because of the hype, the definition of data science is so diluted that some people say that the term itself has become useless. The truth is that dealing with data is hard, every organisation is somewhat different, and it takes time and commitment to get value out of data. The worst thing you can do is to hire an expensive expert to help you, and then ignore their advice when their findings are hard to digest. If you’re not ready to work with a data scientist, you might as well save yourself some money and remain in a state of blissful ignorance.

Note: This article is not a portrayal of how things are with my current employer, Car Next Door. Views expressed are my own. In fact, if you want to work at a place where expert advice is acted on and uncertainty is seen as something to be studied rather than ignored, we’re hiring!

Banana gun data scientist

Is Data Scientist a useless job title?

Data science can be defined as either the intersection or union of software engineering and statistics. In recent years, the field seems to be gravitating towards the broader unifying definition, where everyone who touches data in some way can call themselves a data scientist. Hence, while many people whose job title is Data Scientist do very useful work, the title itself has become fairly useless as an indication of what the title holder actually does. This post briefly discusses how we got to this point, where I think the field is likely to go, and what data scientists can do to remain relevant.

The many definitions of data science

About two years ago, I published a post discussing the definition of data scientist by Josh Wills, as a person who is better at statistics than any software engineer and better at software engineering than any statistician. I still quite like this definition, because it describes me well, as someone with education and experience in both areas. However, to be better at statistics than any software engineer and better at software engineering than any statistician, you have to be truly proficient in both areas, as some software engineers are comfortable running complex experiments, and some statisticians are capable of building solid software. Quite a few people who don’t meet Wills’s criteria have decided they wanted to be data scientists too, expanding the definition to be something along the lines of someone who is better at statistics than some software engineers (who’ve never done anything fancier than calculating a sample mean) and better at software engineering than some statisticians (who can’t code).

In addition to software engineering and statistics, data scientists are expected to deeply understand the domain in which they operate, and be excellent communicators. This leads to the proliferation of increasingly ridiculous Venn diagrams, such as the one by Stephan Kolassa:

Perfect data scientist Venn diagram

The perfect data scientist from Kolassa’s Venn diagram is a mythical sexy unicorn ninja rockstar who can transform a business just by thinking about its problems. A more realistic (and less exciting) view of data scientists is offered by Rob Hyndman:

I take the broad inclusive view. I am a data scientist because I do data analysis, and I do research on the methodology of data analysis. The way I would express it is that I’m a data scientist with a statistical perspective and training. Other data scientists will have different perspectives and different training.

We are comfortable with having medical specialists, and we will go to a GP, endocrinologist, physiotherapist, etc., when we have medical problems. We also need to take a team perspective on data science.

None of us can realistically cover the whole field, and so we specialise on certain problems and techniques. It is crazy to think that a doctor must know everything, and it is just as crazy to think a data scientist should be an expert in statistics, mathematics, computing, programming, the application discipline, etc. Instead, we need teams of data scientists with different skills, with each being aware of the boundary of their expertise, and who to call in for help when required.

Indeed, data science is too broad for any data scientist to fully master all areas of expertise. Despite the misleading name of the field, it encompasses both science and engineering, which is why data scientists can be categorised into two types, as suggested by Michael Hochster:

  • Type A (analyst): focused on static data analysis. Essentially a statistician with coding skills.
  • Type B (builder): focused on building data products. Essentially a software engineer with knowledge in machine learning and statistics.

Type A is more of a scientist, and Type B is more of an engineer. Many people end up doing both, but it is pretty rare to have an even 50-50 split between the science and engineering sides, as they require different mindsets. This is illustrated by the following diagram, showing the information flow in science and engineering (source).

Information flow in science and engineering

Why Data Scientist is a useless job title

Given that a data scientist is someone who does data analysis, and/or a scientist, and/or an engineer, what does it mean for a person to hold a Data Scientist position? It can mean anything, as it depends on the company and industry. A job title like Data Scientist at Company is about as meaningful as Engineer at Organisation, Scientist at Institution, or Doctor at Hospital. It gives you a general idea what the person’s background is, but provides little clue as to what the person actually does on a day-to-day basis.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few examples. Noah Lorang (Basecamp) is OK with mostly doing arithmetic. David Robinson (Stack Overflow) builds machine learning features and internal R packages, and visualises data. Robert Chang (Twitter) helps surface product insights, create data pipelines, run A/B tests, and build predictive models. Rob Hyndman (Monash University) and Jake VanderPlas (University of Washington) are academic data scientists who contribute to major R and Python open-source libraries, respectively. From personal knowledge, data scientists in many Australian enterprises focus on generating reports and building dashboards. And in my current role at Car Next Door I do a little bit of everything, e.g., implement new features, fix bugs, set up data pipelines and dashboards, run experiments, build predictive models, and analyse data.

To be clear, the work done by many data scientists is very useful. The number of decisions made based on arbitrary thresholds and some means multiplied together on a spreadsheet can be horrifying to those of us with minimal knowledge of basic statistics. Having a good data scientist on board can have a transformative effect on a business. But it’s also very easy to end up with ineffective hires working on low-impact tasks if the business has no idea what their data scientists should be doing. This situation isn’t uncommon, given the wide range of activities that may be performed by data scientists, the lack of consensus on the definition of the field, and a general disagreement over who deserves to be called a real data scientist. We need to move beyond the hype towards clearer definitions that would help align the expectations of data scientists with those of their current and future employers.

It’s time to specialise

Four years ago, I changed my LinkedIn title from software engineer with a research background to data scientist. Various offers started coming my way, and they haven’t stopped since. Many people have done the same. To be a data scientist, you just need to call yourself a data scientist. The dilution of the term means that as a job title, it is useless. Useless terms are unlikely to last, so if you’re seriously thinking of becoming a data scientist, you should also consider specialising. I believe we’ll see the emergence of new specific titles, such as Machine Learning Engineer. In addition, less “sexy” titles, such as Data Analyst, may end up making a comeback. In any case, those of us who invest in building their skills, delivering value in their job, and making sure people know about it don’t have much to worry about.

What do you think? Is specialisation inevitable or are generalist data scientists here to stay? Please let me know privately, via Twitter, or in the comments section.

Bayesian split testing calculator screenshot

Making Bayesian A/B testing more accessible

Much has been written in recent years on the pitfalls of using traditional hypothesis testing with online A/B tests. A key issue is that you’re likely to end up with many false positives if you repeatedly check your results and stop as soon as you reach statistical significance. One way of dealing with this issue is by following a Bayesian approach to deciding when the experiment should be stopped. While I find the Bayesian view of statistics much more intuitive than the frequentist view, it can be quite challenging to explain Bayesian concepts to laypeople. Hence, I decided to build a new Bayesian A/B testing calculator, which aims to make these concepts clear to any user. This post discusses the general problem and existing solutions, followed by a review of the new tool and how it can be improved further.

The problem

The classic A/B testing problem is as follows. Suppose we run an experiment where we have a control group and a test group. Participants (typically website visitors) are allocated to groups randomly, and each group is presented with a different variant of the website or page (e.g., variant A is assigned to the control group and variant B is assigned to the test group). Our aim is to increase the overall number of binary successes, where success can be defined as clicking a button or opening a new account. Hence, we track the number of trials in each group together with the number of successes. For a given group, the number of successes divided by number of trials is the group’s raw success rate.

Given the results of an experiment (trials and successes for each group), there are a few questions we would typically like to answer:

  1. Should we choose variant A or variant B to maximise our success rate?
  2. How much would our success rate change if we chose one variant over the other?
  3. Do we have enough data or should we keep experimenting?

It’s important to note some points that might be obvious, but are often overlooked. First, we run an experiment because we assume that it will help us uncover a causal link, where something about A or B is hypothesised to cause people to behave differently, thereby affecting the overall success rate. Second, we want to make a decision and choose either A or B, rather than maintain multiple variants and present the best variant depending on a participant’s features (a problem that’s addressed by contextual bandits, for example). Third, online A/B testing is different from traditional experiments in a lab, because we often have little control over the characteristics of our participants, and when, where, and how they choose to interact with our experiment. This is an important point, because it means that we may need to wait a long time until we get a representative sample of the population. In addition, the raw numbers of trials and successes can’t tell us whether the sample is representative.

Bayesian solutions

Many blog posts have been written on how to use Bayesian statistics to answer the above questions, so I won’t get into too much detail here (see the posts by David Robinson, Maciej Kula, Chris Stucchio, and Evan Miller if you need more background). The general idea is that we assume that the success rates for the control and test variants are drawn from Beta(αA, βA) and Beta(αB, βB), respectively, where Beta(α, β) is the beta distribution with shape parameters α and β (which yields values in the [0, 1] interval). As the experiment runs, we update the parameters of the distributions – each success gets added to the group’s α, and each unsuccessful trial gets added to the group’s β. It is often reasonable to assume that the prior (i.e., initial) values of α and β are the same for both variants. If we denote the prior values of the parameters with α0 and β0, and the number of successes and trials for group x with Sx and Tx respectively, we get that the success rates are distributed according to Beta(α0 + SA, β0 + TA – SA) for control and Beta(α0 + SB, β0 + TB – SB) for test.

For example, if α0 = β0 = 1, TA = 200, SA = 120, TB = 200, and SB = 100, plotting the probability density functions yields the following chart (A – blue, B – red):

Beta distributions examples

Given these distributions, we can calculate the most probable range for the success rate of each variant, and estimate the difference in success rate between the variants. These can be calculated by deriving closed formulas, or by drawing samples from each distribution. In addition, it is important to note that the distributions change as we gather more data, even if the raw success rates don’t. For example, multiplying each count by 10 to obtain TA = 2000, SA = 1200, TB = 2000, and SB = 1000 doesn’t change the success rates, but it does change the distributions – they become much narrower:

Narrower beta distributions

In the second case we’ve gathered ten times the data, which made the distributions much more distinct. Intuitively, this means we can now be more confident that the success rate of A is higher than that of B. Quantifying this confidence and deciding when to conclude the experiment isn’t straightforward, and should depend on factors that aren’t fully captured by the raw counts. The way I chose to address this issue is presented below, after briefly discussing existing calculators and their limitations.

Existing online calculators

The beauty of frequentist tools for significance testing is that they always give you a simple answer. For example, if we plug the numbers from the first case above (TA = 200, SA = 120, TB = 200, and SB = 100) into Evan Miller’s calculator, we get:

Chi-Squared test example

Unfortunately, both Bayesian calculators that I’m aware of have some limitations. Plugging the same numbers into the calculators by PeakConversion and Lyst would inform you that the probability of A being best is approximately 0.98, but it won’t tell you what’s the best way forward given this information. PeakConversion also outputs the 95% success rate intervals for A (between 53.1% and 66.7%) and B (between 43.1% and 56.9%), but it doesn’t let users set the prior values α0 and β0 (it uses α0 = β0 = 0.5). The ability to set priors based on what we know about our experimental setting is an important feature of Bayesian statistics that can help reduce the number of false positives. Hiding the priors in PeakConversion’s calculator makes it easier to use but less powerful than Lyst’s tool. In addition, Lyst’s calculator presents the distribution of differences between the success rates of A and B, i.e., the effect size. This is important because we may not bother implementing certain changes if the effect is negligible, even if the probability of one variant being better than the other is very close to 1.

Despite being more powerful, I find Lyst’s calculator just a bit too technical. Specifically, setting the α0 and β0 priors requires some familiarity with the beta distribution, which many people don’t have. Also, the effect size distribution is important, but can be hard to get one’s head around. Therefore, I decided to extend Lyst’s calculator, aiming to release a new tool that is both powerful and easy to use.

Building the new calculator

The source code for Lyst’s calculator is available on GitHub, so I decided to use that as the foundation of the new calculator. The first step was to convert the code from HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to Jade, Sass, and CoffeeScript, and clean up some code duplication. As the calculator is served from my GitHub Pages domain, it was easiest to put all the code in that repository. Once I had an environment and codebase that I was happy with, it was time to make functional changes:

  • Change the layout to be responsive, so it’d work well on mobile devices.
  • Enable sharing of results by changing the URL when the input changes.
  • Provide clear instructions, so that the calculator can be used by people who don’t necessarily have a strong background in statistics.
  • Allow users to set priors based on more familiar figures than the beta distribution’s α0 and β0 priors.
  • Make a clear and well-justified recommendation on how to proceed.

While the first two changes were straightforward to implement, the other points were somewhat more challenging. Specifically, providing clear explanations that assume little background knowledge isn’t simple, and I still feel that the current version of the new calculator is a bit too wordy (this may be improved in the future based on user feedback – suggestions welcome). Life would be easier if everyone thought of observed values as being drawn from distributions, but in my experience this is not always the case. However, I believe it is important to communicate the reality of uncertainty, so I don’t want to hide it from users of the calculator, even at the price of more elaborate explanations.

Making the priors more intuitive was a bit tricky. At first, I thought I’d let users state their prior knowledge in terms of the mean and variance of past performance, relying on the fact that for Beta(α, β) the mean μ is α / (α + β), and the variance σ2 is αβ / (α + β)2(α + β + 1). The problem is that while the mean is simple to set, as it is always in the (0, 1) range, the upper bound for the variance depends on the mean. Specifically, it can be shown that the variance is in the range (0, μ(1 – μ)). Therefore, I decided to let users quantify their uncertainty about the mean as a number u in the range (0, 1), where σ2 = uμ(1 – μ). Having played with the calculator a bit, I think this makes it easier to set good informative priors. It is also worth noting that I considered allowing users to set different priors for the control and test group, but decided against it to reduce complexity. In addition, it makes sense to have the same prior for both groups – if you have a strong belief or knowledge on which one is going to perform better, you probably don’t need to run an experiment.

One of the main reasons I decided to build the calculator was because I wanted a tool that outputs a clear recommendation. This proved to be the most challenging (and interesting) part of this project, as there are quite a few options for Bayesian stopping rules. After reading David Robinson’s review of the limitations of a stopping rule based on the expected loss, and a few of the other resources mentioned in his post, I decided to go with a combination of the third and fourth rules tested by John Kruschke. These rules rely on a threshold of caring, which is the minimum effect size that is seen as significant by the user. For example, if we’re running experiments on the conversion rate of a landing page, we may decide that we don’t care if the absolute change in conversion rate is less than 0.1%. Given this threshold and data from the experiment, the following recommendations are possible:

  1. Stop the experiment and implement either variant, because the difference between the variants is smaller than the threshold.
  2. Stop the experiment and implement the winning variant, because the difference between the variants is greater than the threshold.
  3. Keep running the experiment, because there isn’t enough data to make a decision.

Formally, Kruschke’s rules work as follows. Given the minimum effect threshold t, we define a region of practical equivalence (ROPE) to zero difference as the interval [-tt]. Then, we compare the ROPE to the 95% high density interval (HDI) of the distribution of differences between A and B. When comparing the ROPE and HDI, there are three options that correspond to the recommendations above:

  1. The ROPE is completely contained in the HDI (stop the experiment and implement either variant).
  2. The intersection between the ROPE and HDI is empty (stop the experiment and implement the winning variant).
  3. The ROPE and HDI only partly overlap (keep running the experiment).

Kruschke’s post shows that making the rule more restrictive by adding a notion of user-settable precision can reduce the rate of false positives. The idea is to stop only if the HDI is narrower than precision multiplied by the width of the ROPE. Intuitively, this forces the experimenter to collect more data because it makes the posterior distributions narrower (as shown by the charts above). I found it hard to explain the idea of precision, and didn’t want to confuse users by adding another parameter, so I decided to use a constant precision value of 0.8. If the ROPE and HDI don’t overlap, the tool makes a recommendation to stop, accompanied by a binary level of confidence: high if the precision condition is met, and low otherwise.

Putting in the numbers from the running example (TA = 200, SA = 120, TB = 200, and SB = 100) together with a minimum effect of 1%, prior success rate of 50%, and 57.74% uncertainty (equivalent to α0 = β0 = 1), we get the following output:

Calculator recommendation example

The full results also include plots of the distributions and their high density intervals. I’m pretty happy with the richer information provided by the calculator, though it still has some limitations and areas that can be improved.

Limitations and potential improvements

As mentioned above, I’d love to reduce the wordiness of the calculator while keeping it self-contained, but I need some feedback to understand if any explanations are redundant. It’d also be great to reduce the reliance on magic numbers, such as the 95% HDI and 0.8 precision used for generating a recommendation. However, making these settable by users would increase the complexity of using the calculator, which is already harder to use than the frequentist alternative. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that oversimplification is the reason why it’s easier to make the wrong decision when following the classical approach.

Other potential changes include switching to a closed-form formula rather than draws from a distribution, comparing more than two variants, and improving Kruschke’s stopping rules by simulating more scenarios than those considered in his post. In addition, I’d like to go beyond binary responses (success/failure) to support continuous rewards (e.g., revenue), and allow users to specify different costs for the variants (e.g., implementing B may cost more than sticking with A).

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that significance testing can’t tell you whether your sample is representative of the population. For example, if you run an experiment on a very popular website, you can get a sample of thousands of people within a few minutes. Concluding an experiment based on such a sample is probably a bad idea, as it is plausible that you would reach different conclusions if you kept running the experiment for a few days, to reduce the effect that the time of day has on the results. Similarly, a few days may not be enough if your user population behaves differently on weekends – you would need to run the experiment over a few weeks. This can be extended to months and years to rule out seasonal effects, but it is up to the experimenter to weigh the practicality of considering such factors versus the need to make decisions (see articles by Peep Laja, Martin Goodson, Sam Ju, and Kohavi et al. for more details). The main thing to remember is that you just cannot completely eliminate uncertainty and the need to consider background knowledge, which is why I believe that helping more people follow the Bayesian approach is a step in the right direction.

Diving deeper into causality: Pearl, Kleinberg, Hill, and untested assumptions


Background: I have previously written about the need for real insights that address the why behind events, not only the what and how. This was followed by a fairly popular post on causality, which was heavily influenced by Samantha Kleinberg’s book Why: A Guide to Finding and Using Causes. This post continues my exploration of the field, and is primarily based on Kleinberg’s previous book: Causality, Probability, and Time.

The study of causality and causal inference is central to science in general and data science in particular. Being able to distinguish between correlation and causation is key to designing effective interventions in business, public policy, medicine, and many other fields. There are quite a few approaches to inferring causal relationships from data. In this post, I discuss some aspects of Judea Pearl’s graphical modelling approach, and how its limitations are addressed in recent work by Samantha Kleinberg. I then finish with a brief survey of the Bradford Hill criteria and their applicability to a key limitation of all causal inference methods: The need for untested assumptions.

Judea Pearl Overcoming my Pearl bias

First, I must disclose that I have a personal bias in favour of Pearl’s work. While I’ve never met him, Pearl is my academic grandfather – he was the PhD advisor of my main PhD supervisor (Ingrid Zukerman). My first serious exposure to his work was through a Sydney reading group, where we discussed parts of Pearl’s approach to causal inference. Recently, I refreshed my knowledge of Pearl causality by reading Causal inference in statistics: An overview. I am by no means an expert in Pearl’s huge body of work, but I think I understand enough of it to write something of use.

Pearl’s theory of causality employs Bayesian networks to represent causal structures. These are directed acyclic graphs, where each vertex represents a variable, and an edge from X to Y implies that X causes Y. Pearl also introduces the do(X) operator, which simulates interventions by removing all the causes of X, setting it to a constant. There is much more to this theory, but two of its main contributions are the formalisation of causal concepts that are often given only a verbal treatment, and the explicit encoding of causal assumptions. These assumptions must be made by the modeller based on background knowledge, and are encoded in the graph’s structure – a missing edge between two vertices indicates that there is no direct causal relationship between the two variables.

My main issue with Pearl’s treatment of causality is that he doesn’t explicitly handle time. While time can be encoded into Pearl’s models (e.g., via dynamic Bayesian networks), there is nothing that prevents creation of models where the future causes changes in the past. A closely-related issue is that Pearl’s causal models must be directed acyclic graphs, making it hard to model feedback loops. For example, Pearl says that “mud does not cause rain”, but this isn’t true – water from mud evaporates, causing rain (which causes mud). What’s true is that “mud now doesn’t cause rain now” or something along these lines, which is something that must be accounted for by adding temporal information to the models.

Nonetheless, Pearl’s theory is an important step forward in the study of causality. In his words, “in the bulk of the statistical literature before 2000, causal claims rarely appear in the mathematics. They surface only in the verbal interpretation that investigators occasionally attach to certain associations, and in the verbal description with which investigators justify assumptions.” The importance of formal causal analysis cannot be overstated, as it underlies many decisions that affect our lives. However, it seems to me like there’s still plenty of work to be done before causal analysis becomes as established as other statistical tools.

Samantha Kleinberg Kleinberg: Addressing gaps in Pearl’s work

I recently finished reading Samantha Kleinberg’s Causality, Probability, and Time. Kleinberg dedicates a good portion of the book to presenting the history of causality and discussing its many definitions. As hinted by the book’s title, Kleinberg believes that one cannot discuss causality without considering time. In her words: “One of the most critical pieces of information about causality, though – the time it takes for the cause to produce its effect – has been largely ignored by both philosophical theories and computational methods. If we do not know when the effect will occur, we have little hope of being able to act successfully using the causal relationship.” Following this assertion, Kleinberg presents a new approach to causal inference that is based on probabilistic computation tree logic (PCTL). With PCTL, one can concisely express probabilistic temporal statements. For example, if we observe a potential cause c occurring at time t, and a possible effect e occurring at time t’, we can use PCTL to state the hypothesis that in general, after c becomes true, it takes between one and |t’ – t| time units for e to become true with probability at least p, i.e., c leads to e:

PCTL cause leads to effect

It is obvious why PCTL may be a better fit than Bayesian networks for expressing causal statements. For example, with a Bayesian network, we can easily express the statement that smoking causes lung cancer with probability 0.3, but this isn’t that useful, as it doesn’t tell us how long it’ll take for cancer to develop. With PCTL, we can state that smoking causes lung cancer in 5-30 years with probability at least 0.3. This matches our knowledge that cancer doesn’t develop immediately – one cigarette won’t kill you.

One of the key concepts introduced by Kleinberg is that of causal significance. Calculating the causal significance of a cause c to an effect e relies on first identifying the set X of potential (or prima facie) causes of e. The set X contains all discrete variables x such that E[e|x]≠E[e] and x occurs earlier than e. Given the set X, the causal significance of c to e is the mean of E[e|c∧x] – E[e|¬c∧x] for all x≠c. The intuition is that if a cause c is significant, its causal significance value will be high when other potential causes are held fixed. For example, if c is heavy smoking and e is severity of lung cancer (with e=0 meaning no cancer), the expected value of e given c is likely to be higher than the expected value of e given ¬c, when conditioned on any other potential cause. Once causal significance has been measured, we can separate significant causes from insignificant causes by setting a threshold on causal significance values (this threshold can be inferred from the data). Significant causes are considered to be genuine if the data is stationary and the common causes of all pairs of variables have been included, which is a very strong condition that may be hard to fulfil in realistic scenarios. However, causal significance is an evolving concept – last year, Huang and Kleinberg introduced a new definition of causal significance that can be inferred faster and yield more accurate results. My general feeling is that this line of research will continue to yield many interesting and useful results in coming years.

Kleinberg’s work is not without its limitations. In addition to the assumptions that causal relationships are stationary and the requirement to identify all potential causes, the recently-introduced definition of causal significance also requires the relationships to be linear and additive (though this limitation may be relaxed in future work). Another issue is that most of the evaluation in the studies I’ve read was done on synthetic datasets. While there are some results on real-life health and finance data, I find it hard to judge the practicality of utilising Kleinberg’s methods without applying them to problems that I’m more familiar with. Finally, as with other work in the field of causal inference, we need to have some degree of belief in untested assumptions to reach useful conclusions. In Kleinberg’s words:

Thus, a just so cause is genuine in the case where all of the outlined assumptions hold (namely that all common causes are included, the structure is representative of the system and, when data is used, a formula satisfied by the data will be satisfied by the structure). Our belief in whether a cause is genuine, in the case where it is not certain that the assumptions hold, should be proportional to how much we believe that the assumptions are true.

Austin Bradford Hill Hill: Testing untested assumptions

To the best of my knowledge, all causal inference methods rely on untested assumptions. Specifically, we can never include all the variables in the universe in our models. Therefore, any conclusions drawn are reliant on deciding what, when, and how to measure potential causes and effects. Another issue is that no matter how good and believable our modelling is, we cannot use causal inference to convince unreasonable people. For example, some people may cite divine intervention as an unmeasurable cause of anything and everything. In addition, people with certain commercial interests often try to raise doubt about well-established causal mechanisms by making unreasonable claims for evidence of various hidden factors. For example, tobacco companies used to claim that both smoking and lung cancer were caused by a common hidden factor, making the link between smoking and lung cancer a mere association.

Assuming that we are dealing with reasonable people, there’s still the question of where we should get our untested assumptions from. This question is fairly old, and has been partly answered in 1965 by Austin Bradford Hill, with nine criteria that he recommended should be considered before calling an association causal:

  1. Strength: How strong is the association? For example, lung cancer deaths of heavy smokers are 20-30 times greater than those of non-smokers.
  2. Consistency: Has the association been repeatedly observed in various circumstances? For example, many different populations have exhibited an association between smoking rates and cancer.
  3. Specificity: Can we pin down specific instances of the effect to specific instances of the cause? Hill sees this as a nice-to-have condition rather than a must-have – cases with multiple possible causes may not fulfil the specificity requirement.
  4. Temporality: Do we know that c leads to e or are we observing them together? This is a condition that isn’t always easy to fulfil, especially when dealing with feedback loops and slow processes.
  5. Biological gradient: Hill’s focus was on medicine, and this condition refers to the association exhibiting some dose-response curve. This can be generalised to other fields, as we can expect some regularity in the effect if it is a function of the cause (though it doesn’t have to be a linear function).
  6. Plausibility: Do we know of a mechanism that can explain how the cause brings about the effect?
  7. Coherence: Does the association conflict with our current knowledge? Even if it does, it isn’t enough to rule out causality, as our current knowledge may be incomplete or wrong.
  8. Experiment: If possible, running controlled experiments may yield very powerful evidence in favour of causation.
  9. Analogy: Do we know of any similar cause-and-effect relationships?

Hill summarises the list of criteria (or viewpoints) with the following statements.

Here then are nine different viewpoints from all of which we should study association before we cry causation. What I do not believe – and this has been suggested – is that we can usefully lay down some hard-and-fast rules of evidence that must be obeyed before we accept cause and effect. None of my nine viewpoints can bring indisputable evidence for or against the cause-and-effect hypothesis and none can be required as a sine qua non. What they can do, with greater or less strength, is to help us to make up our minds on the fundamental question – is there any other way of explaining the set of facts before us, is there any other answer equally, or more, likely than cause and effect?

No formal tests of significance can answer those questions. Such tests can, and should, remind us of the effects that the play of chance can create, and they will instruct us in the likely magnitude of those effects. Beyond that they contribute nothing to the ‘proof’ of our hypothesis.

Hill then goes on to criticise the increased focus on statistical significance as a condition for accepting scientific papers for publication. Remembering that this was over 50 years ago, it is a bit worrying that it has taken so long for the statistical community to formally acknowledge the fact that statistical significance does not imply scientific importance, or constitutes enough evidence to support a causal hypothesis.

Closing thoughts

This post has only scratched the surface of the vast field of study of causality. At this point, I feel like I’ve read quite a bit, and it is time to apply what I learned to real problems. I encounter questions of causality in my everyday work, but haven’t fully applied formal causal inference to any problem yet. My view is that everyone needs to at least be aware of the need to consider causality, and of what it’d take to truly prove causal impact. A large proportion of what many people need in practice may be addressed by Hill’s criteria, rather than by formal methods for causal analysis. Nonetheless, I will report back when I get a chance to apply formal causal inference to real datasets. Stay tuned!

The rise of greedy robots

Given the impressive advancement of machine intelligence in recent years, many people have been speculating on what the future holds when it comes to the power and roles of robots in our society. Some have even called for regulation of machine intelligence before it’s too late. My take on this issue is that there is no need to speculate – machine intelligence is already here, with greedy robots already dominating our lives.

Machine intelligence or artificial intelligence?

The problem with talking about artificial intelligence is that it creates an inflated expectation of machines that would be completely human-like – we won’t have true artificial intelligence until we can create machines that are indistinguishable from humans. While the goal of mimicking human intelligence is certainly interesting, it is clear that we are very far from achieving it. We currently can’t even fully simulate C. elegans, a 1mm worm with 302 neurons. However, we do have machines that can perform tasks that require intelligence, where intelligence is defined as the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations. Unlike artificial intelligence, there is no doubt that machine intelligence already exists.

Airplanes provide a famous example: we don’t commonly think of them as performing artificial flight – they are machines that fly faster than any bird. Likewise, computers are super-intelligent machines. They can perform calculations that humans can’t, store and recall enormous amounts of information, translate text, play Go, drive cars, and much more – all without requiring rest or food. The robots are here, and they are becoming increasingly useful and powerful.

Who are those greedy robots?

Greed is defined as a selfish desire to have more of something (especially money). It is generally seen as a negative trait in humans. However, we have been cultivating an environment where greedy entities – for-profit organisations – thrive. The primary goal of for-profit organisations is to generate profit for their shareholders. If these organisations were human, they would be seen as the embodiment of greed, as they are focused on making money and little else. Greedy organisations “live” among us and have been enjoying a plethora of legal rights and protections for hundreds of years. These entities, which were formed and shaped by humans, now form and shape human lives.

Humans running for-profit organisations have little choice but to play by their rules. For example, many people acknowledge that corporate tax avoidance is morally wrong, as revenue from taxes supports the infrastructure and society that enable corporate profits. However, any executive of a public company who refuses to do everything they legally can to minimise their tax bill is likely to lose their job. Despite being separate from the greedy organisations we run, humans have to act greedily to effectively serve their employers.

The relationship between greedy organisations and greedy robots is clear. Much of the funding that goes into machine intelligence research comes from for-profit organisations, with the end goal of producing profit for these entities. In the words of Jeffrey Hammerbacher: The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. Hammerbacher, an early Facebook employee, was referring to Facebook’s business model, where considerable resources are dedicated to getting people to engage with advertising – the main driver of Facebook’s revenue. Indeed, Facebook has hired Yann LeCun (a prominent machine intelligence researcher) to head its artificial intelligence research efforts. While LeCun’s appointment will undoubtedly result in general research advancements, Facebook’s motivation is clear – they see machine intelligence as a key driver of future profits. They, and other companies, use machine intelligence to build greedy robots, whose sole goal is to increase profits.

Greedy robots are all around us. Advertising-driven companies like Facebook and Google use sophisticated algorithms to get people to click on ads. Retail companies like Amazon use machine intelligence to mine through people’s shopping history and generate product recommendations. Banks and mutual funds utilise algorithmic trading to drive their investments. None of this is science fiction, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a world where greedy robots are even more dominant. Just like we have allowed greedy legal entities to dominate our world and shape our lives, we are allowing greedy robots to do the same, just more efficiently and pervasively.

Will robots take your job?

The growing range of machine intelligence capabilities gives rise to the question of whether robots are going to take over human jobs. One salient example is that of self-driving cars, that are projected to render millions of professional drivers obsolete in the next few decades. The potential impact of machine intelligence on jobs was summarised very well by CGP Grey in his video Humans Need Not Apply. The main message of the video is that machines will soon be able to perform any job better or more cost-effectively than any human, thereby making humans unemployable for economic reasons. The video ends with a call to society to consider how to deal with a future where there are simply no jobs for a large part of the population.

Despite all the technological advancements since the start of the industrial revolution, the prevailing mode of wealth distribution remains paid labour, i.e., jobs. The implication of this is that much of the work we do is unnecessary or harmful – people work because they have no other option, but their work doesn’t necessarily benefit society. This isn’t a new insight, as the following quotes demonstrate:

  • “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have. […] For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
  • “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. […] Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. […] If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed.” – Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness (1932)
  • “In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.” – David Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013)

This leads to the conclusion that we are unlikely to experience the utopian future in which intelligent machines do all our work, leaving us ample time for leisure. Yes, people will lose their jobs. But it is not unlikely that new unnecessary jobs will be invented to keep people busy, or worse, many people will simply be unemployed and will not get to enjoy the wealth provided by technology. Stephen Hawking summarised it well recently:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

Where to from here?

Many people believe that the existence of powerful greedy entities is good for society. Indeed, there is no doubt that we owe many beneficial technological breakthroughs to competition between for-profit companies. However, a single-minded focus on profit means that in many cases companies do what they can to reduce their responsibility for harmful side-effects of their activities. Examples include environmental pollution, multinational tax evasion, and health effects of products like tobacco and junk food. As history shows us, in truly unregulated markets, companies would happily utilise slavery and child labour to reduce their costs. Clearly, some regulation of greedy entities is required to obtain the best results for society.

With machine intelligence becoming increasingly powerful every day, some people think that to produce the best outcomes, we just need to wait for robots to be intelligent enough to completely run our lives. However, as anyone who has actually built intelligent systems knows, the outputs of such systems are strongly dependent on the inputs and goals set by system designers. Machine intelligence is just a tool – a very powerful tool. Like nuclear energy, we can use it to improve our lives, or we can use it to obliterate everything around us. The collective choice is ours to make, but is far from simple.