Valentin Mihov's Blog

Random pieces of wisdom about technology

AWS Machine Learning Overview

In the last blog post I showed you how to slice and dice a data set describing individual people and trying to predict if they make more than $50,000 annually. We used ipython and a bunch of libraries to do the analysis, build a prediction model and evaluate its performance. This requires having knowledge about how to use all these python libraries and what exactly to do with the data (although you can use the ipython notebook from that blog post as a general framework to analyze any data set). It also requires installing all this software on your system, which can be non-trivial.

Recently Amazon released a new AWS service called Machine Learning. It provides a simplified and easily scalable way to build machine learning models over arbitrary data sets. In this blog post I will make an overview of this service and compare its results with the ones we obtained using ipython on the same data set we used the last time.

Import the data set into AWS

In order to import the data set into the Amazon’s service you need to upload it on S3. I uploaded the adult data set, which I used previously, on S3 without making any modification on it. After the import was ready it is possible to view the distribution of the target values:

In [1]:

from IPython.display import Image 


It also allows you to view the distribution of the values for the numerical and categorical features. It is very similar to what we did last time.

In [2]:



In [3]:



In the above screenshot you can see that the distribution of the first variable in the data set: Age. It is very similar to what we saw in our ipython analysis.

Building a model

After we looked in the data we can try to build a model, which will predict the target value. In this case it is a classification model with 2 possible classes (‘under or equal to $50k/year’ and ‘over $50k/year’).

After building the model we see that AWS have split our data into two and used 70% of the data to build a model and remaining 30% to test the model. This is a standard approach when building a machine learning model and prevents overfitting.

We also see that the AWS UI provides a confusion matrix of the model and F1 scores for each of the classes.

In [4]:



As you can see the F1 score of the positive target, which in this case is >50K, is 0.69. This is slightly better than the result we got in our ipython analysis using dummy variables which was 0.65. This means that the machine learning model was smart enough to make this optimization in the data. Pretty cool!

Missing data

One thing that can be noticed while browsing the data in the AWS UI is that there is no missing data detected in the dataset, which is not correct. There is a bunch of instances with missing values, that are marked with ?. AWS was not able to recognize these as missing values. Interestingly even after replacing the ? with just empty strings AWS didn’t recognize the values as missing. After digging into the documentation it turns out that missing values are supported only for numerical data. This is really surprising as for categorical data this is important when building a dummy variable transformation. For example if you have a Gender feature that gets values Male and Female you will have 2 dummy variables Gender_Male and Gender_Female taking value of 0 or 1. If you have a missing value for some instance you should set both variables to 0. For example look how the transformation should look like when you have missing data:

In [5]:

import pandas as pd
pd.get_dummies(pd.DataFrame(['Male', 'Female', 'Male', 'Male', np.nan], columns=["Gender"]))
Gender_Female Gender_Male
0 0 1
1 1 0
2 0 1
3 0 1
4 0 0

I am not sure AWS does this, but given that they don’t detect the missing values, then they probably interpret the missing values as just one more class for that feature, which I believe is not ideal.


Overall the AWS Machine Learning product looks great! We were able to load data, build and evaluate a Logistic Regression model just using the web UI. The results were awesome and comparable to the results we got using ipython, but with much less effort from our side.

The downside is the lack of options for machine learning algorithms. For example it would have been really awesome to compare the results from the logistic regression to a decision tree model, like C4.5. I am sure this is on the TODO list of the team developing this product.

Another thing I noticed is that the loading/building/evaluation cycle is quite slow. This is a problem, because usually when you work with data it is important to receive immediate feedback. Very often you want to make a small tweak and see how this affects your results. Doing this through the AWS UI will take you quite a lot of time, as one iteration could take more than 10 mins. If you perform a lot of experiments this time can pile up and impact your workflow significantly.

So if I need to summarize the pros and cons of AWS compared to the ipython toolkit:


  • Very easy to use
  • The results are comparable to a logistic regression with ipython, even slightly better (using all default settings)
  • Easy data visualization of the distribution of the features
  • Very easy to scale to large amounts of data
  • Easier to integrate with your existing AWS deployments


  • Only logistic regression supported at the moment
  • Lack of data analysis besides value distribution. Correlation would have been nice
  • Lack of support for missing values in categorical features
  • Very slow feedback cycle when working with data and models
  • Overall has the most simple tools for data analysis. Not really a substitute for a full featured toolbox, like ipython
  • Can’t examine the built model and the weights of each feature, like we did in the Logistic regression with dummy variables