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Applications of all this stuff

Now that we are through the first project and about halfway through the semester, I thought it would be helpful to take a quick step back and put into perspective what we have learned so far.

Hopefully it is fairly clear that if you want to work in a field that performs data analysis, it is generally useful to understand the basic terminology of predictive models and how to present this information in a short but informative way. I also hope that you feel that the structure of the course has helped teach you some of these basics and give space to practice and hone your skills actually applying and presenting the results.

What might be less obvious is why some of the specific techniques we are looking at may be useful in your future endeavours outside of research in natural language processing, linguistics, or a related field.

To help motivate the more general applicability of these techniques to various fields, now that you know the basics, here are four concrete reasons that the approaches for text analysis we are learning may be more directly useful than expected:

  1. Lots of variables The distinguishing feature of our core set of models (penalized regression) is the need to do regression of multi-class classification when there are a very large number of variables. This is a very common problem in many (most?) domains. For example: genetics, engineering, marketing, accounting, finance, operations research, and supply chain management. Text is a good example to work with in class because the features and results should be familiar to anyone familiar with the English language. Most of the other examples require understanding a lot of domain knowledge that will not be common to everyone in the class.
  2. Feature Construction In order to do text analysis we need to construct features; they are not given to us directly. Some can be created directly from the data, but most often useful features come from selectively summarizing the data from the tokens table. Again, this is very common in industry and research applications, where the most interesting data points are observered at a different frequency or unit of measurement than the response variable. For example, think of computing a credit score based on summary statistics selected from a person’s financial history or determining a patient’s prognosis based on a history of medical records and lab reports. As with the lots of variables point, text is just a useful example of this kind of analysis that does not require specialized domain knowledge.
  3. Text is actually quite common A surprising amount of data being produced and analyzed in industry and research applications contains at least some free text fields. Think, for example, of trying to detect indicators of fraud when investigating a collection emails, or automatically detecting themes or signaling problems by doing text analysis on call center logs. In the age of large datasets, the amount of free text used in all kinds of applications will likely only grow. Being able to know the specific techniques to work with is just another benefit of focusing on textual data.
  4. False Binary: Supervised/Unsupervised We have not yet talked about unsupervised learning, a kind of machine learning that is not focused on predictive models. This will be the focus on Project 3 and Project 4. Text datasets lend themselves to both modes of analysis simultaneously; this is another common feature of real-world applications that is often lost in other textbook examples of machine learning applications.

I hope that these examples help show further links between and possible applications of what we are learning in class. It should also be mentioned that I find working with textual data to also be just a bit more fun (at least, for most of us) than orienting the class around other tabular datasets.

Feedback from Project 1 and looking towards Project 2

I was overall very impressed with the presentations for the first project. There were virtually no major mistakes and it was clear that a lot of time and energy went into the project. I really appreciate that and hope it was a productive and not-to-painful (or even enjoyable?) experience. I have called out specific things to keep in mind for the second project, mostly minor things, in your feedback. I am happy to discuss further in your breakout groups today.

The second project has the same general instructions and format, but the data and classification task has a larger scope. You’ll need to be more careful to focus your final analysis on just a small set of interesting things. I am not evaluating the scope of what you did, but rather how well you were able to tell a story about something interesting in the data. I recommend the following rough schedule:

My guess is that you will find Project 2 much harder. We will built out more techniques for working with this kind of data as we head into Project 3. Just do your best with the tools we have at hand!