DataTalks.Club

Deep Learning with Structured Data

by Mark Ryan

The book of the week from 18 Jan 2021 to 22 Jan 2021

Deep learning offers the potential to identify complex patterns and relationships hidden in data of all sorts. Deep Learning with Structured Data shows you how to apply powerful deep learning analysis techniques to the kind of structured, tabular data you’ll find in the relational databases that real-world businesses depend on. Filled with practical, relevant applications, this book teaches you how deep learning can augment your existing machine learning and business intelligence systems.

Questions and Answers

Wendy Mak

I haven’t read the book, so apologies if these are already covered in the book. I have a few questions:

  • Are there any real world industrial use cases of DL for tabular data that you are aware of? (ie company x is using it to solve problem y etc)
  • in many instances DL does not offer any significant boost to ‘traditional’ methods such as boosted trees etc for structured data, is there any problems where DL is a clear winner like in computer vision and NLP?
  • if you have both structured and unstructured data as attributes for modelling, how would you combine DL/ traditional methods for best results, or would you use DL for the whole pipeline?
Mark Ryan

Hi Wendy Mak - great questions:

  • Companies can be a bit coy about exactly what model they are using for particular applications, but I have heard that companies that have to detect patterns of fraud (for example, in credit card transactions) have been using deep learning with tabular data. Tabnet (nice description here https://towardsdatascience.com/implementing-tabnet-in-pytorch-fc977c383279 ) would suggest that Google is using deep learning for tabular data, but again I don’t know for sure in what areas. Nvidia has some active research on DL with tabular data, but I expect that is directed at finding new markets for GPUs rather than to solve their own internal work.
  • You’re absolutely right that traditional methods have been the “go to” for tabular data. In the book I have a significant part of one chapter comparing an XGBoost solution of the major coding example in the book with the DL solution. In that comparison, XGBoost comes out slightly ahead in raw performance (accuracy and avoiding false negatives), and DL & XGBoost are roughly tied in terms of code complexity and training time. Where DL comes out ahead is flexibility - DL could tackle problems with tabular data that includes columns with unstructured text, for example, where traditional ML methods would be at best clunky, and I believe it’s much easier to create a DL system that can handle a very broad range of tabular data.
  • I think that one of the reasons that traditional ML has outshone DL for tabular data is that DL has a reputation for being “hard”. I argue in the book that improvements in DL frameworks (e.g. integration of Keras w. TensorFlow as of TF 2.0), along with much better DL training for non-specialists (such as the fast.ai DL courses and the deeplearning.ai DL curriculum) eliminate that objection.
  • For tackling a problem that has both structured and unstructured data, I would argue to keep an open mind about DL for the whole pipeline. I mentioned tables with free-form text columns as a simple example. Columns with JSON structures is another example. For more use cases with, say, images and tabular data, I don’t have direct experience, but I think that such use cases would lend themselves to DL end-to-end as well.
  • Finally, I wouldn’t advocate DL for all tabular (or all mixed tabular/unstructured) problems. If there isn’t enough data (at least 10s of thousands of records), or if the tabular structure is really simple, I don’t see DL being beneficial. I also think there are many applications where DL and traditional ML may be closely matched and it may boil down to what’s the simplest engineering problem to solve. The case I try to make in the book is to keep an open mind about DL being a valid option for problems involving tabular data.
Mark Ryan

Thanks for your questions and I hope the responses are useful.

Wendy Mak

yeap, thanks for the insight :))

Sara Lane

Hi Mark,
Thanks for making yourself available for our questions.
What inspired you to write a book about deep learning with structured data?

Mark Ryan

Hi Sara - when I was learning about deep learning, almost all of the examples used in the teaching materials had nothing to do with problems from my actual job. Like many people, my job is all about tabular data. A sample DL application to classify images isn’t relevant to my work. NLP is a bit more relevant, but what I really wanted was examples that I could apply to my job. Further, when I asked experts why DL wasn’t suitable for tabular data, the answers they gave me weren’t all that convincing, so I went looking for better answers, and that ultimately led to the book.

Sara Lane

Also, do you see deep learning eventually surpassing machine learning (ex. XGBoost) in terms of raw performance with tabular data? If so, can you specify what changes you think are going to happen to cause that?

Mark Ryan

Will DL surpass non-DL (e.g. XGBoost) in terms of performance? Maybe. I think it’s a research area that isn’t getting a lot of attention. However, I think that the real question is overall cost of implementing a model in production. If XGBoost requires tons of feature engineering and needs tweaking when the table structure changes, while DL can produce an adequate model without so much feature engineering, then DL may be better for an application even if its raw performance in terms of accuracy isn’t as good as XGBoost. XGBoost may continue to win Kaggle competitions over DL but DL may be better to solve real-world tabular data problems for businesses.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

Deep learning is known to be vulnerable to adversarial attacks. The main focus until now was on the image domain, and there the ability of adversaries to execute the attacks is limited (e.g. they usually can’t change individual pixels on your camera, etc..). But this is not the case with the tabular data. Aren’t better security and interpretability of the shallow model almost always more important than extra few points in the accuracy?

Mark Ryan

Hi Vladimir Finkelshtein model security and interpretability are important. For model security, I haven’t seen any comparisons between XGBoost and DL on tabular data, though I have seen some work on DL on tabular data vulnerability to adversarial attacks (https://arxiv.org/abs/1911.03274). For interpretability, that’s an area that’s getting a lot of focus in DL in general, so I expect it won’t be a bottleneck for DL on tabular data in particular. As for accuracy, I don’t think it will be the deciding point either way. Overall “cost of ownership” - how much feature engineering is required and how robust is the overall application to changes in schema/table structure - will decide whether DL is better than XGBoost for a particular real-world application.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

Thanks for the example. Hopefully, there will be more success with defenses soon.
If everything boils down to “cost of ownership”, wouldn’t AUTOML be the best choice for the majority of the use cases? In particular, it will be the one to make the choice of the technology :)

Mark Ryan

AutoML may indeed reach the point where us mere humans won’t have to make choices between DL and something else for tabular datasets. I don’t think AutoML is near that yet for real-world problems.

Sara Lane

AutoML isn’t there yet. I’m working on a project now comparing Azure AutoML to Azure hyperdrive (hyperparameter tuning) and I’m getting better results with the hyperdrive. Admittedly, I think that usually the AutoML is better, but clearly that’s not always the case.

Alper Demirel

Hello Mark,
First of all, thank you for offering us such an opportunity.

  • How effective do you think DL is for regression solutions?
  • Is there information about hyperparameter tuning in the book?
Mark Ryan

Hi Alper Demirel and thanks for your questions. Insightful question about regression. I’ve had better luck with classification than regression on DL with tabular data, particularly with data sets that are on the lower end of “good enough” for DL (10’s of thousands of records). I expect that DL would be OK for regression given enough data to get a signal, but I only have one example of my own to go on, and that was for a dataset of about 1.5 M records.

Mark Ryan

The book does have a section about hyperparameter tuning in the context of the major code example, how the parameters were chosen and which ones a reader may want to tweak as they expand on the major code example.

Alper Demirel

Thank you very much for your answers sir

Alper Demirel

I’m looking forward to reading your book

Vladimir Finkelshtein

So according to your previous answers, the main advantage of DL in structured data is automatic “feature engineering”/non-linear representation of the data. Do you think we can see in the future some pre-trained embeddings for different domains (like the ones for text/images)? For example, one could collect all the health related features from many big data sets, and run it through an autoencoder. I know it’s very vague and speculative, but can such a thing possibly be beneficial?

Mark Ryan

I think the advantages of DL for tabular data are less feature engineering as well as flexibility to deal with a broad variety of tabular data (able to deal with tables that colums that have free-form text or encompass BLOBs). Another benefit that could be useful is using DL to exploit the metadata in database catalogs - I think there’s potential to do some interesting things like using the catalog to crawl all the tables in a database and then using DL to automatically generate models on the subset of column/table combinations that are “interesting” (with the definition of “interesting” TBD). Such a scenario, where the table structures are not known ahead of time, requires the flexibility of DL.
I think what you are suggesting is a kind of transfer learning for tabular data. That’s an interesting idea - as far as I know, nobody has investigated that yet.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

After googling a bit, it seems like some folks are trying to use transfer learning, but in somewhat nonnatural way - by first transforming tabular data to image and then doing transfer learning on images. I wonder if this is because CNN is more powerful in finding features than other architectures.
I do think that in some instances such trick may be natural. For example timeseries with seasonality can be represented as a nice image.

Mark Ryan

Thanks Vladimir Finkelshtein - I hadn’t heard of people taking that approach (tabular -> image -> transfer learning on the images). I wonder what the source of the transfer learning was in this use case.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

https://towardsdatascience.com/fast-and-accurate-learning-with-transfer-learning-on-tabular-data-how-and-why-dfe4e752bb2d for example here it seems they just used ImageNet, so I guess anything can work.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

here is the paper:

Vladimir Finkelshtein

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1903.06246.pdf

Mark Ryan

thanks Vladimir Finkelshtein!

Rishabh Bhargava

Hi Mark, thanks for writing this book - looking forward to checking it out soon. In the meantime, a couple of questions for you:

  • I know you mentioned TabNet earlier, but are there any neural net architectures that you see becoming the de-facto standard for structured data problems? As an example (and generally speaking), CNNs are the go-to architectures in Computer Visions and RNNs/Transformers in NLP.
  • Are there specific industries or use cases involving structured data where Deep Learning should be used more, but isn’t? I’m trying to understand if there are cases when folks are spending a lot of time feature engineering, but one can rely on DL to save the day 🙂
Mark Ryan

Hi Rishabh Bhargava - for architectures for DL with tabular data, I’ve seen LSTMs used for examples in financial services. The extended example in my book uses an architecture where each class of column (continuous, categorical, or text) gets a distinct set of layers, so in that example there are really 3 architectures, one for each kind of column, wrapped into a single model. For the future I wouldn’t be surprised to see transformers used in some DL for tabular data applications. Transformers seem to be eating the world, so why not tabular data?
For your second question, I think it’s not so much a case of DL not being used for tabular data as not being considered for tabular data. Regulated industries (where model changes need to be submitted to a standards/regulatory body before going into production) are shy about DL because of its reputation for not being interpretable. There’s great work being done to make DL more transparent and thus more palatable for regulated industries, but I don’t think the research in that area has reached the point where it can convince all the stakeholders that DL is ready for regulated industries.

Rishabh Bhargava

Would love to see Transformers for these problems!

Ritobrata Ghosh

Mark Ryan, can you provide some insights why Deep Learning, when applied to tabular data, doesn’t always give better results than ensemble methods such as Random Forests?

Mark Ryan

Hi Ritobrata Ghosh - this article has a good summary of why DL can lag behind other methods (including columns often being correlated in tabular data, making it harder to tease out the features that are really independent): https://towardsdatascience.com/the-unreasonable-ineffectiveness-of-deep-learning-on-tabular-data-fd784ea29c33

Ritobrata Ghosh

Thanks for pointing out the resource. I will give it a read.

Vladimir Finkelshtein

I don’t fully understand the claims in the article. Imbalances in data can be addressed with class_weight with reasonable effectiveness. Maybe I am wrong, but the main problem of correlations between the features is the convergence of the learning (also for shallow ML models), but I imagine that this could be addressed with regularization.
Missing values are mentioned as a reason, but it is not clear why xgboost deals with it better than deep learning.
The whole story about embeddings of features not being dense - that seems just to be a matter of network architecture. Tokenized text is also not embedded densely, so one needs to construct something that will find nice embeddings.
It seems to me that everything sums to: neural networks are just harder to tune and one has very little intuition how to do it. They rarely work out of the box, unlike decision trees.

Matt Welke

Mark Ryan I’m just getting into data science and ML now. I feel a bit overwhelmed with all the options out there for machine learning and deep learning. People throw around a lot of words that don’t mean anything to me. But I know my work has lots of data in tabular format. We have massive SQL data warehouse. Do you think your book would help me find useful things I could do with it when finished the book?

Mark Ryan

Hi Matt - I was in your shoes, getting into modern ML (I had a background in symbolic, early 90s style AI, but that had the distinct characteristic of not working) and trying to solve problems with data in relational databases. If you want to see how to apply ML to tabular data and you haven’t done any ML, I suggest starting with an ML overview (like Andrew Ng’s introductory ML course) and get some experience with Python. With that you should be able to try out a classic ML approach like XGBoost on some problems with tabular data. I would be delighted if you were to also get my book, but it does assume basic ML knowledge and the code example assumes some ability with Python.
When you’re ready to try out deep learning, the fast.ai intro course https://course.fast.ai/ is a great starting point.
I hope this is helpful. You probably have a treasure trove of potential applications of ML in that data warehouse.

Matt Welke

Thanks for the reply. My work reimburses me for educational books, so I’ve actually already purchased yours. 😛 I’m just planning my path. I started by taking a Coursera course on GCP data engineering, since that’s what I do at work. It introduced me to a few of the GCP ML products. Then, I got more familiar with Python. Right now, I’m reading the Manning book “Machine Learning Bookcamp” and I’m liking it so far. The first project you code along with in the book used used tabular data.

Matt Welke

I’m thinking your book on ML with structured data is my next book.

Matt Welke

Thanks for the tips. I might take that course too. I definitely fit into the “without a PhD” category. I only have a college diploma. I spent some time yesterday on Wikipedia learning what normal distributions were lol.

Matt Welke

One step at a time, eh.

Mark Ryan

That sounds like a great plan. Thanks very much for buying the book and I hope that you find it useful.

Alexey Grigorev

hey Matt Welke glad to hear that you like ML Bookcamp :) if you have any questions about it, you can use #ml-bookcamp or #books or just write me in DM
(Sorry Mark for hijacking your thread)

Matt Welke

Oh true that’s how I found this Slack server. 😛

Matt Welke

Yeah I’ve only completed the first two chapters I think. I’m super busy this month finishing up studying for my GCP data engineer cert (I take the exam on the 30th). So I’m just doing that for now, and I’ll sink my teeth back into ML in February.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Mark Ryan, How will you rate and rank DL frameworks and methods available for working with tabular data (NVIDIA Rapids, fast.ai Tabular, TabNet, etc.) keeping in mind these important factors- effectiveness, ease of use, and resource efficiency?

Mark Ryan

Hi Ritobrata Ghosh - I’ve used fastai and Keras for DL on tabular problems, and done some experiments with Rapids. I have looked at TabNet but not used it to tackle a problem. Between fastai and Keras, fastai is easier to get started with because it provides a bunch of support for tabular data, like automatically identifying categorical and continuous columns. The advantage of Keras is that it’s better documented and there’s a larger community of developers working with it (overall, not just on tabular problems). Rapids is essentially a way to do what you would do with Pandas but with much better performance thanks to exploiting GPUs. I got great perf results with Rapids but when I ran into some install / config issues trying to use it in different environments. For example, I could get it to work in Paperspace Gradient, but not for multiple sessions, and it worked in Colab but not consistently. Since perf wasn’t critical path for what I was working on, I didn’t pursue it.

Mark Ryan

Overall, I would recommend fastai for somebody starting with DL for tabular data, and starting with Keras for a more production-oriented application, but assuming fastai gets used more, it could be good for production as well.

Mark Ryan

Here’s a high-level overall comparison of fastai & Keras: https://youtu.be/3d6rGGyPR5c

Ritobrata Ghosh

Thanks for the suggestions, I will go through them.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Actually, I am a heavy user of PyTorch and its ecosystem and derived tools. I would like to stick with it.

Ritobrata Ghosh

With fast.ai’s tutorials and documentation, I did not have any issues getting started with it for tabular data.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Mark Ryan, what do you think of PyTorch Lightning (and its API and efficiency) with respect to working with tabular data?

Mark Ryan

Hi Ritobrata Ghosh - I have not used Lightening, but from what I understand, its relationship to vanilla PyTorch (from a user perspective) has some similarities to Keras’ relationship to TensorFlow. I have used & like fastai (see responses above), and it seems to have some overlap in use cases with Lightening. This exchange includes some contrasts between Lightening and fastai: https://forums.fast.ai/t/fastai2-vs-pytorch-lightening-pros-and-cons-integration-of-the-two/71341/11

Ritobrata Ghosh

Mark Ryan, would you recommend RAPIDS AI for non-Deep Learning tasks? This question is kind of naive. I mean, for really large datasets, even datasets with 10 gigs of data, Pandas doesn’t work out of the box. You have to tune it, tweak function parameters, etc. if you don’t have large memory at your disposal. So, People use Dask, or DataTable (from H2O.ai) for these tasks. Do you recommend continue using those tools or move to RAPIDS, or would using RAPIDS for non-DL tasks would be an overkill?

Mark Ryan

Hi Ritobrata Ghosh if you have GPU capacity and a large dataset RAPIDS seems to be a good fit even if you’re not doing deep learning. I saw really good performance with RAPIDS compared to Pandas, when I was able to get RAPIDS working consistently. Paperspace has a RAPIDS-enabled Gradient notebook environment that makes it fairly painless to experiment with RAPIDS: https://gradient.paperspace.com/integrations/nvidia-rapids

Ritobrata Ghosh

That’s what I wanted to know. And I didn’t notice Paperspace having a ready-made RAPIDS environment. I will certainly head over there soon and get my hands dirty. Thanks a bunch.
The nextt time I handle tabular data for a project, I will seriously consider RAPIDS over DataTable.

Alexey Grigorev

Some time ago I took active parts in Kaggle competitions and for tabular data the winners usually use xgboost or some other GBT method. However, there’s always one or two people in the gold who used a neural net for their solution
So clearly it’s possible to get great performance with neural nets, but it’s not the usual choice. Why do you think it’s the case?
Is it more difficult to do it with neural nets, or just xgboost is the to-go method for tabular data, so other models don’t get so much attention?

Mark Ryan

Hi Alexey Grigorev - I think DL is not considered for tabular data problems because (a) the Kaggle success of non-DL that you refer to (b) somewhat dated perception that DL is more difficult to develop with than non-DL (c) model intepretability - a legit concern, but becoming less so, (d) unlike other use cases where DL has blown the doors off alternatives in terms of performance, DL and non-DL have similar performance in many tabular data problems.
What needs to change for DL to be taken more seriously as an option for tabular data problems? Better understanding in business of research on making DL more interpretable and a more realistic assessment of how Kaggle results do (and do not) apply to real-world applications with non-curated, “wild” datasets.
I hope that my book contributes to a more balanced approach to applying DL to tabular datasets.

Alexey Grigorev

Thank you!

Alexey Grigorev

When it comes to interpretability, xgboost is as black-boxy as neural nets in my opinion

Ashutosh Sanzgiri

Alexey Grigorev Could you elaborate on why you think xgboost is “black-boxy”? Tools such as LIME and SHAP work fine with xgboost models.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Alexey Grigorev, anything that goes beyond Lin Reg and Log Reg, is not fully interpretable, IMO.
And to solve pressing real world problems, I don’t think we should limit ourselves to using algorithms based only on interpretability. IMO, we should shift our focus more to problem-solving than interpratability.
I also understand that in some fields, interpretability is crucial or even mandatory. We have to stick with Log Reg in those fields for a while.

Alexey Grigorev

Yes, I agree that we don’t have to stick to logreg for the rest of our lives
I’d also add decision trees to that list of out-of-the-box interpretable models

Doink

I think all classical ML Algos are interpretable right?

Alexey Grigorev

by classical you mean linear? or not-deep-learning?

Doink

By classical I mean Linear, Logistic Regression, SVM, KNN, Naive Bayes, Decision Tree, Random Forest, Tree Ensembles. Not Neural Nets

Sara Lane

Can you tell us about your favorite DL-with-structured-data project that you worked on and why it was your favorite?

Mark Ryan

Hi Sara Lane - I really enjoyed the project described in the book because it involves a subject area (transit) that I’m very interested in, and the dataset was incredibly real-world & messy. However, I have to say my favourite DL with tabular data project was one I did when I was back at IBM. I was responsible for the support team for Db2 relational database, and I wanted to predict from past support tickets when a client would escalate (make a duty manager call). The dataset (support ticket records) was interesting, and I was motivated to make the solution work because I fewer duty manager calls meant fewer interruptions for me on weekends. I describe the project in more detail in this article: https://medium.com/@markryan_69718/deep-learning-on-structured-data-part-3-9bff73cc77c4

Sara Lane

I read the article - fascinating, thanks for sharing! Curious - can you venture a guess as to which fields made the difference?

Mark Ryan

Hi Sara Lane - the subject column (a free-form text description of the problem entered by the client who opened the ticket) had a surprising impact. When I started doing models with this dataset I expected this column would be pretty useless because it varied so much (from “help - db crashed” to an SQL error code to a long summary of symptoms) and a third of the time it wasn’t even English text. But with even with rudimentary NLP on this column it ended up helping the model quite a bit, given a sufficient volume of ticket data to train on.

Sara Lane

Wow! So interesting! You’re right, I wouldn’t have expected that, especially since like you said a third of the time it wasn’t even English. Now I’ll think twice when typing in the subject for a support ticket…

Sara Lane

I’m thinking about this more, I’m wondering if maybe the ability to clearly and concisely express one’s issue in the subject column is connected to communications skills in general. Meaning that if someone can clearly state their problem in the subject column, it’s more likely that the issue will be resolved without reaching a crisis level. But if someone has poor communication skills, that will reflect in the subject column and will also more likely result in a Duty Manager call.
This is probably an over-simplification, but I think it’s an example of how deep learning can often demonstrate connections that we were never aware of.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Mark Ryan, in your opinion, what are the paths forward to alleviate the problem of ineffectiveness of DL in tabular data?

Mark Ryan

Hi Ritobrata Ghosh - despite the title of this article https://towardsdatascience.com/the-unreasonable-ineffectiveness-of-deep-learning-on-tabular-data-fd784ea29c33 - I think the problem isn’t so much the universal ineffectiveness of DL for tabular data. I think the problem is the common perception that DL isn’t even worth considering for tabular data. How to alleviate that problem? Keep an open mind, take advantage of the frameworks that exist now to do proofs of concept with DL on tabular data, and don’t assume that what works best for winning Kaggle competitions will work best for production solutions for businesses.

Ritobrata Ghosh

I have asked this from a research perspective. What should be DL practitioners’ approach to alleviate the ineffectiveness of DL in case of tabular data?

Mark Ryan

Thanks - that’s a great way to look at it. From a research perspective I think there are two approaches that could yield results. The first is to look at how the metadata about tables that exists in relational database catalogs could be harnessed. I think catalog information is a huge, untapped resource - every table has it and there’s a core of catalog info that is common across just about all database vendors. Second, and I think this is harder, I think there is more work that could be done on formalizing what combinations of columns / characteristics of tabular data lead to better outcomes w. DL. For example, in his book on fastai, in the section about DL w. tabular data, Jeremy Howard states that it works well when you have categorical columns with lots of distinct values. Enhancing heuristics like this with a more comprehensive analysis would be very useful.

Ritobrata Ghosh

Thanks so much for the response. I have never thought about using relations in an RDB can be seen as inputs to a DL model. That’s a great idea. I have not come across a paper that does this.
And I remember Jeremy Howard’s video and also the chapter involving tabular data. He asks the learner to rely on heuristics before putting the data through a DL model. And that really works well.

Mark Ryan

Thanks to everybody who participated this week and thanks very much to Alexey Grigorev for providing the venue. I really enjoyed the questions and the exchange of ideas.
If you get the book I encourage you to leave a review on Amazon - thanks!: https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Learning-Structured-Data-Mark/dp/1617296724/ref=sr_1_1?c[…]+learning+with+structured%2Cstripbooks-intl-ship%2C312&sr=1-1

Alexey Grigorev

Thank you Mark for agreeing to take part in this event and finding time to answer our questions!

Alper Demirel

Thank you very much for your answers 🤩

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