Tag Archives: data visualisation

Qualitative evaluation of topic models: a methodological offering

Topic models: a Pandora’s Black Box for social scientists

Probabilistic topic modelling is an improbable gift from the field of machine learning to the social sciences and humanities. Just as social scientists began to confront the avalanche of textual data erupting from the internet, and historians and literary scholars started to wonder what they might do with newly digitised archives of books and newspapers, data scientists unveiled a family of algorithms that could distil huge collections of texts into insightful lists of words, each indexed precisely back to the individual texts, all in less time than it takes to write a job ad for a research assistant. Since David Blei and colleagues published their seminal paper on latent Dirichlet allocation (the most basic and still the most widely used topic modelling technique) in 2003, topic models have been put to use in the analysis of everything from news and social media through to political speeches and 19th century fiction.

Grateful for receiving such a thoughtful gift from a field that had previously expressed little interest or affection, social scientists have returned the favour by uncovering all the ways in which machine learning algorithms can reproduce and reinforce existing biases and inequalities in social systems. While these two fields have remained on speaking terms, it’s fair to say that their relationships status is complicated.

Even topic models turned out to be as much a Pandora’s Box as a silver bullet for social scientists hoping to tame Big Text. In helping to solve one problem, topic models created another. This problem, in a word, is choice. Rather than providing a single, authoritative way in which to interpret and code a given textual dataset, topic models present the user with a landscape of possibilities from which to choose. This landscape is defined in part by the model parameters that the user must set. As well as the number of topics to include in the model, these parameters include values that reflect prior assumptions about how documents and topics are composed (these parameters are known as alpha and beta in LDA). 1 Each unique combination of these parameters will result in a different (even if subtly different) set of topics, which in turn could lead to different analytical pathways and conclusions. To make matters worse, merely varying the ‘random seed’ value that initiates a topic modelling algorithm can lead to substantively different results.

Far from narrowing down the number of possible schemas with which to code and analyse a text, topic models can therefore present the user with a bewildering array of possibilities from which to choose. Rather than lending a stamp of authority or objectivity to a textual analysis, topic models leave social scientists in the familiar position of having to justify the selection of one model of reality over another. But whereas a social scientist would ordinarily be able to explain in detail the logic and assumptions that led them to choose their analytical framework, the average user of a topic model will have only a vague understanding of how their model came into being. Even if the mathematics of topics models are well understood by their creators, topic models will always remain something of a ‘black box’ to many end-users.

This state of affairs is incompatible with any research setting that demands a high degree of rigour, transparency and repeatability in textual analyses. 2 If social scientists are to use topic models in such settings, they need some way to justify their selection of one possible classification scheme over the many others that a topic modelling algorithm could produce, 3 and to account for the analytical opportunities foregone in doing so.

If you’ve ever tried to interpret even a single set of topic model outputs, you’ll know that this is a big ask. Each run of a topic modelling algorithm produces maybe dozens of topics (the exact number is set by the user), each of which in turn consists of dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of relevant words whose collective interpretation constitutes the ‘meaning’ of the topic. Some topics present an obvious interpretation. Some can be interpreted only with the benefit of domain expertise, cross-referencing with original texts, and perhaps even some creative licence. Some topics are distinct in their meaning, while others overlap with each other, or vary only in subtle or mysterious ways. Some topics are just junk.

If making sense of a single topic model 4 is a complex task, comparing one model with another is doubly so. Comparing many models at a time is positively Herculean. How, then, is anyone supposed to compare and evaluate dozens of candidate models sampled from all over the configuration space? Continue reading

Notes:

  1. The generative model of LDA assumes that each document in a collection is generated from a mixture of hidden variables (topics) from which words are selected to populate the document. The number of topics in the model is a parameter that must be set by the user. The proportions by which topics are mixed to create documents, and by which words are mixed to define topics, are presumed to conform to specific distributions which are sampled from the Dirichlet distribution, which is essentially a distribution of distributions. The shape of these two prior distributions is determined by two parameters—often referred to as hyperparameters to distinguish them from the internal components of the model—which are usually denoted as alpha (α) and beta (β). Whereas alpha controls the presumed specificity of documents (a smaller value means that fewer topics are prominent within a document), beta controls the presumed specificity of topics (a smaller value means that fewer words within a topic are strongly weighted). Like the number of topics, these hyperparameters are set by the user, ideally with some regard for the style and composition of the texts being analysed.
  2. It’s important to recognise that criteria such as transparency and repeatability are not applicable to all textual analysis traditions. Some traditions assume a degree of interpretation and subjectivity that render such criteria all but irrelevant. The probabilistic nature of topic models presents a very different set of challenges and opportunities to such traditions, at least insofar as practitioners are inclined to use them.
  3. That is, assuming that only one fitted topic model is used in the analysis. Conceivably, an analysis could use and compare several models.
  4. In this post, as in much of the literature on topic modelling, the term ‘topic model’ may describe one of two things. The more general sense of the term refers to a particular generative model of text, which may or may not be paired with a specific inference algorithm. In this sense, LDA is one example of a topic model, and the structural topic model is another. The second sense of the term refers to the outputs, in the form of term distributions and document allocations, obtained by applying a topic model in the first sense to a particular collection of texts. (These outputs may also be referred to as a ‘fitted topic model’.) The relevant sense of the term will usually be evident from the context in which it is used.

Tweeps in lockdown: how to see what’s happening on Twitter

What we talk about when we talk about the lockdown

Back in January, I wrote a lengthy, data-driven meditation on the merits of my relocation from Brisbane to Melbourne. My concern at that time was the changing climate. Australia had been torched and scarred by months of bushfires, and I was feeling pretty good about escaping Brisbane’s worsening heat for Melbourne’s occasionally manic but mostly mild climatic regime.

But by gosh do I wish I was back in Brisbane now, and not just because Melbourne’s winter can be dreary. While Brisbanites are currently soaking up as much of their famed sunshine as they like, whether on the beach or in the courtyard of their favourite pub, Melburnians are confined to their homes, allowed out of the house for just an hour a day. During that hour, we are unable to venture more than 5km from our homes or to come within 1.5 meters of each other, leaving little else to do but walk the deserted streets and despair at all of the shuttered bars, restaurants and stores. All in the name of containing yet another existential threat that we can’t even see.

Of course, just because we can’t see the coronavirus doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. Indeed, one unfortunate consequence of the ‘Stage 4’ lockdown 1 that’s been in place in Melbourne since the 2nd of August is that there is little else to talk about. We distract ourselves from talking about how bad things are by talking instead about how things got so bad in the first place. On days when our tireless premier (who at the time of writing has delivered a press conference every day for 50 days running) announces a fall in case numbers, we dare to talk about when things might not be so bad any more.

Fifty days and counting. Image from ABC News.

This post is anything but an attempt to escape this orbit of endless Covid-talk. Quite the opposite. In this post, I’m not just going to talk about the lockdown. I’m going to talk about what we talk about when we talk about the lockdown. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. To date, we’ve been from Stage 3 back to Stage 2, and then up again to Stage 3 before ratcheting up to Stage 4. Hopefully we’ll be back to Stage 3 in a few weeks. We keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what we think it means. If I lapse into calling it ‘Level 4’ instead, that’s why.

HeatTraKR – A Knime workflow for exploring Australian climate data

Recently, I decided to crunch some data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (which I’ll just call BoM) to assess some of my own perceptions about how the climate in my home city of Brisbane had changed throughout my lifetime. As always, I performed the analysis in Knime, a free and open software platform that allows you to do highly sophisticated and repeatable data analyses without having to learn how to code. Along the way, I also took the opportunity to sharpen my skills at using R as a platform for making data visualisations, which is something that Knime doesn’t do quite as well.

The result of this process is HeatTraKR, a Knime workflow for analysing and visualising climate data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, principally the Australian Climate Observations Reference Network – Surface Air Temperature (ACORN-SAT) dataset, which has been developed specifically to monitor climate variability and change in Australia. The workflow uses Knime’s native functionality to download, prepare and manipulate the data, but calls upon R to create the visual outputs. (The workflow does allow you to create the plots with Knime’s native nodes, but they are not as nice as the R versions.)

I’ve already used the HeatTraKR to produce this post about how the climate in Brisbane and Melbourne (my new home city) is changing. But the workflow has some capabilities that are not showcased in that post, and I will take the opportunity to demonstrate these a little later in the present post.

Below I explain how to install and use the HeatTraKR, and take a closer look at some of its  outputs that I have not already discussed in my other post. Continue reading

Confessions of a climate deserter

For so long, climate change has been discussed in Australia (and indeed elsewhere) as if it were an abstract concept, a threat that looms somewhere in the future. Not anymore. In 2019, climate change became a living nightmare from which Australia may never awake.

While I prepared this post in the dying weeks of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, there was not a day when some part of the country was not on fire. As at 24 January, more than 7.7 million hectares — that’s an area about the size of the Czech Republic — have burned. Thirty-three people have died. Towns have been destroyed. Old-growth forests have burned. Around a billion animals have been killed. Whole species have probably been lost.

The effects were not only felt in the bush. Capital cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra endured scorching temperatures while choking in smoke. Newspaper front pages (except those of the Murdoch press) became a constant variation on the theme of red. The country entered a state of collective trauma, as if at war with an unseen and invincible enemy.

The connection between the bushfires and climate change has been accepted by nearly everyone, with the notable exception of certain denialists who happen to be running the country–and even they are starting to change their tune (albeit to one of ‘adaptation and resilience’). One thing that is undeniable is that 2019 was both the hottest and driest year Australia has experienced since records began, and by no small margin. In December, the record for the country’s hottest day was smashed twice in a single week. And this year was not an aberration. Eight of the ten hottest years on record occurred in the last 10 years.  Environmentally, politically, and culturally, the country is in uncharted territory.

Climate deserters

I watched this nightmare unfold from my newly adopted city of Melbourne, to which which I moved from Brisbane with my then-fiancée-now-wife in January 2019. As far as I can tell, Melbourne has been one of the better places in the country to have been in the past few months. The summer here has been pleasantly mild so far, save for a few horrific days when northerly winds baked the city and flames lapped at the northern suburbs. It seems that relief from the heat is never far away in Melbourne: the cool change always comes, tonight or tomorrow if not this afternoon. During the final week of 2019, as other parts of Victoria remained an inferno, Melbourne reverted to temperatures in the low 20s. We even got some rain. It was almost embarrassing.

Finding relief from the heat is one of the reasons my wife and I moved to Melbourne. Having lived in Brisbane all of our lives, we were used to its subtropical summers, but the last few pushed us over the edge. To be sure, Brisbane rarely sees extreme heat. In summer, the maximums hover around 30 degrees, and rarely get beyond the mid-30s. But as Brisbanites are fond of saying (especially to southerners ), it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets you. The temperature doesn’t have to be much about 30 degrees in Brisbane before comfort levels become thoroughly unreasonable. Continue reading