Data Science Hackathon

Last weekend I attended the Data Science Hackathon. It was a pretty simple idea: given a dataset from a city’s air-sensor stations the goal was to create a model that could predict the city’s air quality. The competition took place over 24 hours across a number of cities around the world and was run using the Kaggle platform.

The Prediction Problem

The basic task of the competition was to come up with a model that would predict air quality in a city given a set of stations that are distributed around it. Air quality was translated into predicting a set of target variables. What were these target variables/stations reading? We don’t know. All we knew was a bunch of historical values for each target, where the stations were (lat/lon) and some extra historical stuff like wind speed and direction. The historical data was further divided into “chunks” of time, so we didn’t have a straight line back in time of data.

Teams were limited to making 8 submissions per day and the error was measured using the well known Mean Absolute Error.

The London Branch of the Hackathon

Was held at the Westminster Hub. A very nice venue, with lots of space, lots of (great) food and about 50 (or so I’ve heard) people in attendance. Flawless organisation. We also had the added benefit of having a reward that was exclusively for the attendees who were participating. Once the competition was launched, people quickly broke off into small teams and got hacking, and continued to do so for the full 24 hours. A handful of people went to sleep at varying times, but the corner I was sitting in was buzzing with activity until the final few minutes. Perhaps my only criticism of the competition was that there was relatively little interaction happening between the groups. Of course, we were competing with one another.. but we were also competing with the rest of the world!

The team beside me (Ferenc Huszar, Jose Miguel Hernandez Lobato, Dan Harvey, and Jedidiah Francis) took the first place – well done guys! I was excited that my team was 3rd, until the competition ended and we were knocked down to fourth place by 0.0004. Better luck next time.

Hacking for 24 hours: Many things didn’t work

This hackathon was an interesting opportunity to sit down and focus on one problem for 24 hours. I haven’t had an all-nighter like this since my undergraduate days, and it’s surprising just how focused you can become after a few hours when you are dedicated to one task and have shut yourself off from the usual distractions that surround us during the normal working day.

Like most other teams, we began by spending what felt like an inordinate amount of time getting to grips with the problem and analysing the correlations between the different variables that we had to predict (see some visualisations on the Kaggle forum here). We then spent a bunch of time “getting ready:” splitting the data into the format that we wanted it to perform different tests, and making a new training/test set from the training data so that we could test models without burning one of our precious submissions. In fact, all of the time that we took trying to get our heads around what needed to be done and how we could go about doing it meant that we didn’t make any submissions on the first day. So much for being precious about the submissions!

We then went straight into implementing a variety of models. We had a bunch of ideas: we wanted to devise predictions based on (a) each target variable, which we decided to model separately with time – which was the most “obvious” direction of work and (b) station, since we assumed that the different target variables would differ across stations and (c) space – we thought that there would probably be some geographic effects in play, or at least some measurable similarities across stations.

Needless to say, most of our efforts failed. Since we were being so precious about “saving” the 8 submissions that we had (since we missed out on making the first 8), it was quite late in the competition that we found out that our internal testing results were not reflecting similar improvements (or even similar performance) as the official results. This was quite disappointing, particularly since we were already so many hours into the competition and were quite groggy at that time.

We also spent a lot (too much?) time either implementing different approaches or learning to use tools that had them implemented already. At least I finally got a chance to learn how to use Random Forests in R, but the way I had them set up did not outperform any of the baselines.

In the last few hours, I went about using up all our last submissions with “dumb” things. Quite surprisingly, this is where we made all of our improvements (and landed 4th in London). Our final model took the highest baseline (“hourly average per chunk”), replaced the arithmetic mean with the geometric mean (to deal with noise) and averaged that with a weighted moving average. Lesson learned: why didn’t I do all these “simple” things first?

Some thoughts

One of the comments that I heard a few times was “if only I had a week to look at this.” Overall, I think that this statement was somewhat reflected in the competition results: the global winner was 0.06 better than the highest baseline, and the winning Londoners (team “Londoners”) were 0.04 better than the baseline.

Without detracting from the winners’ great achievement (given the short time to learn about the problem and implement the solution) I feel that nobody did quite well compared to this very simple baseline. Perhaps this is a good time to re-ignite the domain expertise vs. machine learning debate: would we have done better if we had known what the target variables were?

I’m looking forward to participating in the next hackathon, which will be about music. It was also great to get some sleep on Sunday night!

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2 thoughts on “Data Science Hackathon

  1. Totally agree. In fact our latest submission (enough to win the London branch) was a 25-75% combination of an ‘informed’ approach based on a linear model and the supplied sample solution/benchmark. The winning solutions are still miles away from what would be a decent solution. But the whole thing is somewhat irrelevant, as we weren’t given the data in the right format and evaluated by the right metrics to actually solve the real-world problem.

    As for knowing more about the data, I agree it may have helped. I disagree it being highly relevant to the real-world domain expertise vs. machine learning debate though. Knowing the name of your variables is not the same as being an expert in the domain. To me this debate is about “if I want a prediction problem in domain X to be solved, do I ask someone with good general machine learning skills, or someone who knows all about domain X but poor or no understanding of machine learning and statistics”. I still believe, that a person with solid machine learning background is in a much better position to build an accurate forecasting system than a domain expert that knows how the variables interact but has no idea about machine learning and how to handle uncertain and noisy observations. But neither of them will do any good in 24 hours.

    I think there was a decent amount of domain information in the data that could have been used by us without being domain experts (for example wind speed, barometric measurements are kind of straightforward), but if you want to build a decent model-based understanding of the data you’ll need more than 24 hours, as you’ll probably need to implement a taylor-made algorithm rather than just throwing existing off-the-shelf methods at it. Instead, we used an approach that was pretty much ignorant as to what the variables mean. We just looked at everything as a huge time series. For us, it could’ve been stock prices or anything.

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