tree.bins 0.1.1: Recategorization by Decision Tree Method

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I created tree.bins to provide users the ability to recategorize categorical variables, dependent on a response variable, by iteratively creating a decision tree for each of the categorical variables (class factor) and the selected response variable. The decision tree is created using rpart::rpart. You often encounter variables with several levels when conducting data analysis or using machine learning algorithms. Decision trees can be used to decide how to best collapse these categorical variables into more manageable factors. The rules from the leaves of the decision tree are extracted, and used to recategorize (bin) the appropriate categorical variable (predictor). Only variables containing more than two factor levels will be considered by the function. The final output generates a dataset containing the recategorized variables and/or a list containing a mapping table for each of the candidate variables. For more details see Decision tree methods: applications for classification and prediction by Yan-yan Song and Ying Lu or T. Hastie et al (2009, ISBN: 978-0-387-84857-0).


At FI Consulting, the Data Science Book Club explores cutting-edge topics over a Friday beer. We occasionally challenge each other to a friendly competition practicing new predictive and machine learning models. Last meeting’s challenge used the Ames housing dataset to predict housing prices in Ames, Iowa. It contained a large number of categorical and continuous variables. Altogether, the dataset consisted of over 70 variables. To truly understand the relationship among the variables and the response, in particular the categorical variables, I needed to visualize their relationship with the average house price of homes sold in Ames, Iowa. My goal was to recategorize the current levels into bins that displayed similar relationship with the sale price. Performing such a task manually would have taken extensive effort.

When working with large datasets, there may be a need to recategorize candidate variables by some criterion. tree.bins allows you to recategorize these variables through a decision tree method derived from rpart::rpart. tree.bins is especially useful if the dataset contains several factor class variables with an abnormal number of levels. The intended purpose of the package is to recategorize predictors in order to reduce the number of dummy variables created when applying a statistical method to model a response. This can result in more parsimonious and/or accurate modeling results. The first half of this post illustrates data analysis procedures to identify a typical problem that contains a variable with several levels, and the latter half covers tree.bins functionality and usage.

Pre-Categorization: Typical Variable for Consideration

This section illustrates a typical variable that could be considered for recategorization.

Visualization of Candidate Variable

Using a subset of the Ames dataset, the below chunk illustrates the average home sale price of each Neighborhood.

AmesSubset %>%
  select(SalePrice, Neighborhood) %>%
  group_by(Neighborhood) %>%
  summarise(AvgPrice = mean(SalePrice)/1000) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = reorder(Neighborhood, -AvgPrice), y = AvgPrice)) +
  geom_bar(stat = "identity", fill = "#389135") +
  labs(x = "Neighborhoods", y = "Avg Price (in thousands)",
       title = paste0("Average Home Prices of Neighborhoods")) +
  theme_economist() +
  theme(legend.position = "none",
	axis.text.x = element_text(angle = 90, hjust = 1, size = 8),
        axis.title.x = element_text(size = 12), axis.text.y = element_text(size = 9),
        axis.title.y = element_text(size = 12))


Notice that many neighborhoods observe the same average sale price. This indicates that we could combine and recategorize the Neighborhoods variable into fewer levels.

Statistical Method Implementation of Candidate Variable

The following illustrates the results of using a statistical learning method without using the tree.bins function – linear regression for this example – with the Neighborhoods categorical variable.

fit <- lm(formula = SalePrice ~ Neighborhood, data = AmesSubset)


Notice that there are multiple dummy variables being created to capture the different levels found within the Neighborhoods variable.

Visualizing the Leaves Created by a Decision Tree

The below steps illustrate how rpart categorizes the different levels of Neighborhoods into separate leaves. These leaves are used to generate the mappings that are extracted and applied within tree.bins to recategorize the current data.

d.tree = rpart(formula = SalePrice ~ Neighborhood, data = AmesSubset)


These 5 categories are what tree.bins will use to recategorize the variable Neighborhood.

Post-Categorization: Typical Variable for Consideration

This section illustrates the result of using tree.bins to recategorize a typical variable.

Recategorization of Candidate Variable

There are many neighborhoods with similar average home sale prices. To create fewer dummy variables, we could group the neighborhoods with similar sale prices into one bin. We could alternatively create visualizations to identify these similarities in levels for each variable, but it would remain an extremely tedious task not to mention subjective to the analyst.

A better method would be to use the rules that are generated from a decision tree. Using rpart::rpart, the task remains tedious, especially when there are numerous factor class variables to be considered. The tree.bins function automates this process by iteratively recategorizing each factor level variable for a given dataset.

sample.df <- AmesSubset %>% select(Neighborhood, MS.Zoning, SalePrice)
binned.df <- tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice,
		       bin.nm = "bin#.", return = "new.fctrs")
levels(sample.df$Neighborhood) #current levels of Neighborhood
unique(binned.df$Neighborhood) #new levels of Neighborhood
Old Levels        
Blmngtn Blueste BrDale BrkSide ClearCr
CollgCr Crawfor Edwards Gilbert Greens
GrnHill IDOTRR Landmrk MeadowV Mitchel
OldTown Sawyer SawyerW Somerst StoneBr
SWISU Timber Veenker    
New Levels        
bin#.4 bin#.3 bin#.5 bin#.2 bin#.1

The control parameter in the tree.bins function serves the same purpose as the control parameter in the rpart function. If you specify a value for this parameter, that value will be used to prune the tree for each variable passed in to the data parameter. Remember, that a decision tree is being built to refactor each variable into new levels.

binned.df2 <- tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice,
		       bin.nm = "bin#.", control = rpart.control(cp = .001),
	               return = "new.fctrs") #unique(binned.df2$Neighborhood)
		       #displays new levels of Neighborhood

You can also create a two-dimensional data.frame and pass this object into the control parameter. The first column must contain the variable name(s) that are contained in the data.frame specified in the data parameter. The second column must contain the cp values of the respective variable name(s). Any variable name(s) not included in your data.frame will use the generated cp value within the rpart function. Lastly, the column names identified in your created data.frame are irrelevant, only the elements are important.

cp.df <- data.frame(Variables = c("Neighborhood", "MS.Zoning"), CP = c(.001, .1))
binned.df3 <- tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice, bin.nm = "bin#.",
		        control = cp.df, return = "new.fctrs")
unique(binned.df3$Neighborhood) #new levels of Neighborhood
unique(binned.df3$MS.Zoning) #new levels of MS.Zoning
New Levels Neighborhood MS.Zoning
1 bin#.7 bin#.1
2 bin#.3 bin#.2
3 bin#.9  
4 bin#.4  
5 bin#.1  
6 bin#.2  
7 bin#.8  
8 bin#.5  
9 bin#.6  
10 bin#.10  

The Different Return Options of tree.bins

Depending on what you want, tree.bins can return either the recategorized data.frame or a list of lookup tables. The lookup tables contain the old-to-new value mappings for each recategorized variable generated by tree.bins.

“new.fctrs” returns the recategorized data.frame.

  tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice, bin.nm = "bin#.",
		        control = cp.df, return = "new.fctrs"
SalePrice Neighborhood MS.Zoning
105000 bin#.4 bin#.1
244000 bin#.4 bin#.2
189900 bin#.3 bin#.2
195500 bin#.3 bin#.2
191500 bin#.5 bin#.2
236500 bin#.5 bin#.2

“lkup.list” returns a list of the lookup tables.

  tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice, bin.nm = "bin#.",
 		         control = rpart.control(cp = .01), return = "lkup.list"
  )[[1]] # displaying the first object in the list
Neighborhood Categories
BrDale bin#.1
BrkSide bin#.1
IDOTRR bin#.1
MeadowV bin#.1
OldTown bin#.1
Somerst bin#.2

“both” returns an object containing both the new.fctrs and lkup.list outputs. These can be returned by using the “$” notation.

both <- tree.bins(data = sample.df, y = SalePrice, bin.nm = "bin#.",
 		  control = rpart.control(cp = .01), return = "both")
SalePrice Neighborhood MS.Zoning
105000 bin#.4 bin#.1
244000 bin#.4 bin#.2
189900 bin#.3 bin#.2
195500 bin#.3 bin#.2
191500 bin#.5 bin#.2
236500 bin#.5 bin#.2
MS.Zoning Categories
A (agr) bin#.1
C (all) bin#.1
I (all) bin#.1
RH bin#.1
RM bin#.1
FV bin#.2
RL bin#.2

Using the bin.oth Function

tree.bins recategorizes factor class variables of any data.frame. Assuming that similar data will continue to be collected, or perhaps used in testing the performance of the model, you may want to recategorize this new data.frame by the same lookup tables that were generated from the first data.frame. In this case, being able to bin other data.frames with the same lookup table would be quite useful. The example below takes in a subset of the AmesSubset data and returns a data.frame recategorized by the lookup list generated from the tree.bins function.

head(bin.oth(list = lookup.list, data = sample.df))
SalePrice Neighborhood MS.Zoning
105000 bin#.4 bin#.1
244000 bin#.4 bin#.2
189900 bin#.3 bin#.2
195500 bin#.3 bin#.2
191500 bin#.5 bin#.2
236500 bin#.5 bin#.2

Closing Remarks

I hope tree.bins will help you solve similar problems. Please feel free to post any issues that you encounter or simply keep up with the latest changes and updates on GitHub.

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