Data Science, amongst other things.

Centre of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017

Centre of the Fringe Festival 2017

See a few posts below for the full details of the map – basically it’s the weighted centre of the Fringe festival.


  • That looks obviously wrong. Are you sure it’s right?
    • Honestly, no. Seems pretty fishy to me too. I’ll investigate if I get time but in all honesty, I just ran the same scripts as I wrote last year and it all seemed to work and output answers. This was honestly not much effort at all.
  • Did anybody get you a drink last year as a result of this?
    • No.
  • So it looks like the overall centre of the Fringe moved. Where has it moved to?
    • Basically directly over my work. If you’re in the area and fancy a coffee give me a shout.
  • Can you really call them FAQs if nobody has ever asked any of them?
    • You wouldn’t have thought so, and yet here we are.
  • How do you calculate this again?
    • See the post from last year. Any more questions and let me know.
  • Can I have the scripts so I can run it and do a better job than you?
    • Yes, but let me know. It kind of involves scraping the Fringe website and I don’t want to put that out in the public domain.
  • Given it seems obviously wrong, couldn’t you have checked before posting?
    • Follow-up questions aren’t encouraged. But, it turns out by chance that I posted last years version of this exactly a year ago and I thought I mayerswell try to get this out tonight.


So it goes.

UK Political Manifestos

Hey all,

Standard apologies about not posting for ages and all that. However, assuming you don’t care – let’s get onto the business of things. Firstly – this is a plot of the document similarities between all of the Tory/Labour manifestos from 1979 to 2017:

Document Similarity

Party manifesto cosine similarity

Is that interesting? Maybe. In general, a party’s manifesto is most similar to the same party’s manifesto of the previous election. The most similar manifestos are Labour’s of 2005 and 2010, closely followed by the Tory’s 1992 and 1997 efforts (if it works, it turns out you might still need to fix it!)

Most interestingly for me is the Tory shift in 2010 – the manifestos it was most similar to is Labour starting at 1997 and going all the way through to 2015. If you think that David Cameron and Tony Blair were political bedfellows then the manifestos might not disagree with that view.

So what about in 2017? Labour’s manifesto has managed something that no other manifesto has managed – it’s more similar to every other Labour manifesto than it is to any Tory manifesto. In contrast, Theresa May’s effort leans on Labour’s recent history as well as David Cameron’s time in charge of the Conservatives.

Similar Words

When we say a document is similar to another document, is there a way for us to see what that means and how it works? Well let’s look (for chosen pairs of manifestos) which words are shared. I’m interested in which words are most important to two documents but which aren’t important (or don’t feature) in any of the other documents. Based on that intuition, let’s look at some examples…

Labour 2017 – Tory 2017

– Brexit
– leave European Union
– protections
– devolved administrations

Labour 1983 – Labour 2017

– workers rights
– education service
– publicly owned

Labour 1997 – Tory 2010

– low carbon
– change society
– welfaretowork

I think that’s pretty cool! So we can see which themes are shared across manifestos! Could we build a predictive model to work out what makes a winning manifesto? Absolutely! Would it likely lead to massive overfitting and be practically useless? I’d have thought so.


For those interested in exactly how I did the above, see this repo: repo

As a general summary:

1.) Clean the manifesto text and remove any ‘words’ that are just numbers.
2.) Remove English stopwords and generate 3-grams (“I went to”, “went to the”, “to the shop”).
3.) Perform TF-IDF (work out which words are most important in a document, and across all documents).
4.) Calculate cosine similarity to work out how similar each document is to each other document
For the common words I’ve done something a bit different and written my own algorithm (because I couldn’t find one that did what I wanted it to). If you know of a better way of doing this (finding terms for maximising similarity between documents while minimising for all other documents) let me know!

1.) For each combination of manifesto pairs, generate a column vector with a 1 when the entry corresponds to one of the manifesto pairs and a -1 when the entry doesn’t.
e.g. (1,1,-1,-1,-1…) would be the vector for (Labour1979, Labour1983) (1,-1,-1,-1,1,-1,…) would be the vector for (Labour1979,Labour1997).
2.) Stick all of those columns together to form a matrix (A).
3.) Multiply the transpose of the TFIDF matrix (B) with the combinations matrix (A).
4.) Each column in the resultant matrix (C) now has a score for every single word present across all of the corpuses. The highest scoring words will be ones that have a large TF-IDF score in the two documents we’re interested in, but a small TF-IDF score in all the other documents.
5.) As such, pick to the top N for each column in the resultant matrix (C) and map them back to the feature names that generated the TFIDF matrix (A) in the first place.

Sorry if that explanation isn’t especially clear – have a look at the code and let me know if there’s a better way of doing things!

Choose love, Manchester.

Centre of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

What is that map all about?

It shows the weighted centre of all of the shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. If you want to be at the centre of the action, staying near there isn’t a bad idea. Use the filters to show you where the centre is for different categories (Theatre, Comedy etc.).

Go On…


  • All of the Fringe shows (with date, time, category and subcategory)
  • All of the Fringe venues (with latitude and longitude)


  • Apply a weighting to each show, which is just the number of times it’s on.
  • Get the longitude and latitude of that show’s location.
  • For each subcategory, category, and overall, find the midpoint (according to the weightings calculated above).
  • Plot

Easy. No fuss.

If you’re still curious, ask away. If you’d like to give me beer because I put your bar near the centre of things, good. Do. If you’d like me to find the midpoint of something, let me know. If you’d like me to stop promising to write more and then not doing so, sorry, that’s just unrealistic.

My geekness is a-quivering.

p.s. if there’s sufficient interest I’ll do a tutorial on how to get the data, find the midpoints and then put together the visualization.

Generating B2B sales data in Python


Look, I’m sorry. Yet again, I’ve not written any blog posts for ages. Let’s all get over it and move on to something more important. Sales. Let’s imagine you’re an organisation selling B2B. You use Salesforce (or any other platform). You’ve got plenty of opportunities and a history of those opportunities. You’ve gone and built a sales pipeline.

Good work. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Now you want to use that pipeline to get better at sales. You want to use the data you’ve got to help forecast what you’ll do in the future. You want to know the value of what you’ve already got in the pipeline. You want to know what the most valuable activities you perform are. I’m not going to be able to fit all of that into one post so I’ll break things up into parts and (I’ve said this before only to underdeliver) FINISH THE SERIES.

However, for part 1 I’m actually only going to focus on generating some dummy data to play with. “What!? That’s none of the things you said you’d do!” No. It’s not. However, if you’re able to find me a B2B company with a small number of sales who are willing to publicly share all their data then fair play to you. Lacking that I’m going to have to create a dummy set of data and make it halfway believable. In doing this I’ve made a few assumptions (that I’m later going to try to show). It’s a bit circular but don’t be that guy. What I’m doing is broadly legit and if you look at the data and don’t think it’s reasonable then I’m providing the code so you can change whichever bit you find egregious. Even better, just use your actual company’s sales data (assuming you’re lucky enough to have it).

I’ll be building a dataframe that resembles a Salesforce pipeline – it’s going to have the following rows:

Stage – this is the ‘Salesforce/Hubspot/<don’t care>’ stage in the pipeline. Measures how far along an opportunity is.
Name – got to keep track of the opportunities using something
Value – how much money are we going to make from this opportunity. Daily, Monthly, Annually. Doesn’t matter.
Days – this is the date the opportunity entered the stage given. Going to be important later for time-dependence stuff.

So, let’s begin (all code also available here)

import numpy as np
import random
import matplotlib
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt
import datetime
from datetime import datetime as dt
from scipy import stats
import pandas as pd

def weighted_pick(weights, n_picks):
    t = np.cumsum(weights)
    s = np.sum(weights)
    return np.searchsorted(t, np.random.rand(n_picks)*s)

pre_stages = [('Contact initiated', 0.8, 10), ('Meeting booked', 0.6, 20), ('Trial booked', 0.4, 15), ('Proposal sent', 0.3, 25), ('Contract sent', 0.2, 10)]

closed_stages = ['Closed Won', 'Closed Lost']

success_stages = ['Closed Won']

Here I’m declaring a few things that are going to be useful to me later. I want all of the stages in the pipeline that I care about, the closed stages and the success stages. The code is probably a bit brittle regarding the random addition of closed and success stages but is fine for new ‘pre_stages’. The parameters are the probability that the opportunity will fall out of this stage (rather than move on successfully) and something else that we’ll talk about later.

WORDS = open('/usr/share/dict/words', 'rb').read().splitlines()


sales_opportunities = [(entry.title(), np.random.normal(AVERAGE_SALE_PRICE, SD_SALE_PRICE)) for entry in np.random.choice(WORDS, NUM_POINTS, replace=False)]

Here I’m generating a list of ‘company names’, picking words randomly from a dictionary. In all honesty, just looking through the list of company names is pretty fun in itself. I’m also assuming that the revenue I make from my product is a normal distribution with mean and standard deviation given as ‘AVERAGE_SALE_PRICE’ and ‘SD_SALE_PRICE’. Not rocket science. But it is an assumption I’m making – let’s chalk it down. First assumption: revenue/client is normally distributed. Then we build a list of sales opportunities and their value.

start_date = - datetime.timedelta(days = 365*2)
days_range = range(365*2)
y = [float(entry)/365. for entry in days_range]

indices = weighted_pick(np.exp(y), NUM_POINTS)

Second assumption I’m going to make in generating this data – you’re working for the right kind of start-up/business. Basically, the number of opportunities created are going to broadly follow an exponential distribution. That is, you specify how many opportunities enter the pipeline with ‘NUM_POINTS’ and we’re going to distribute those according to an exponential distribution. I’m saying that the company starts 2 years ago – again, change if you don’t like it.

sales_data = [[pre_stages[0][0], name_value_pair[0], name_value_pair[1], start_date + datetime.timedelta(days = index)] for name_value_pair, index in zip(sales_opportunities, indices)]

remaining_opportunities_frame = pd.DataFrame(sales_data)
remaining_opportunities_frame.columns = ['Stage', 'Name', 'Value', 'Days']

sales_data_frame = pd.DataFrame(sales_data)
sales_data_frame.columns = ['Stage', 'Name', 'Value', 'Days']

finished_list = set([])

OK. Now I’ve got the first set of entries that’ll make up my final dataframe – it’s all of the opportunities with the value (generated from a normal distribution) and the time the opportunity entered the pipeline (generated via an exponential distribution). I’m going to create a few things for later, namely a dataframe containing all of the live opportunities and our final dataframe containing all the rows we’re going to care about.

for stage_index, stage in enumerate(pre_stages[1:]):

    next_stage = pd.DataFrame([(sales_opp[1], index, np.argmax(entry)) for sales_opp in sales_data for index, entry in enumerate(np.random.multinomial(1, [0.99, (1. - stage[1])/100., stage[1]/100.0], ( - sales_opp[3]).days)) if entry[0] != 1 and sales_opp[1] not in finished_list])

The above line is where it’s all at. Let me explain slowly and then again, even slower. My intuition is this – I think that the probability that an opportunity converts (moves from its current stage to the next stage) is proportional to the negative exponential of the time spent in that stage. Let’s be clearer. I’m going to make the third assumption – that the probability of moving to the next stage broadly follows a negative exponential. What’s more, I think that each stage will have its own characteristic drop off rate (or half-life, for those of you thinking this looks mightily like radioactive decay). You know how before I said I’d added a parameter to ‘pre_stages’ and I’d explain it. That’s what ‘pre_stages[x][2]’ is. So, for a given stage in the sales pipeline, for each opportunity left in the previous stage, for every day between when the opportunity entered the stage and now I run the multinomial line. The multinomial line is going to return a binary array of three elements where exactly one of the elements is filled. The first element will be filled in 99% of cases – I’ve chosen to set this and if you don’t like it then change it to something else. It means that, for every day between the opportunity entering the state and today there’s a 99% the opportunity will still be in that state at the end of the day. If the second element is filled then that means that the opportunity succeeded on that particular day (with probability given by the stage parameter). Finally, if the third element is filled then the opportunity died on that particular day. ‘Index’ gives us the number of days that’ve happened since the opportunity entered the stage and the argmax gives us whether we succeeded or failed (you’ll see we’re ignoring days when we neither succeeded or failed).

    next_stage.columns = ['Name', 'Days', 'Status']

    meh = next_stage.ix[next_stage.groupby('Name').Days.idxmin()]
    tempy_frame = meh.merge(remaining_opportunities_frame[['Name', 'Value', 'Days']], how='inner', on='Name')

    tempy_frame['new_date'] = tempy_frame.apply(lambda x: x.Days_y + datetime.timedelta(days = x.Days_x), axis=1)

    tempy_frame = tempy_frame[['Name', 'Value', 'new_date', 'Status']]
    tempy_frame.columns = ['Name', 'Value', 'Days', 'Status']

    success_frame = tempy_frame[tempy_frame.Status == 1]
    success_frame = success_frame.drop('Status', 1)
    success_frame.insert(0, 'Stage', pre_stages[stage_index + 1][0] if stage_index + 1 < len(pre_stages) - 1 else success_stages[0])

    failure_frame = tempy_frame[tempy_frame.Status == 2]
    failure_frame = failure_frame.drop('Status', 1)
    failure_frame.insert(0, 'Stage', closed_stages[1])

    sales_data_frame = sales_data_frame.append(success_frame).append(failure_frame)

That was a crazy line – but it contained most of the interesting stuff we do. From here on in we grab the first of the days that the opportunity moved (we actually kept all of the days in the above line but we’re only allowing each opportunity to move out of each stage once!), add the number of days to the original date we entered the stage to find the day we move into the next stage and then create the rows that we need.

    finished_frame = sales_data_frame.groupby('Name').apply(lambda x: x.Stage.isin(closed_stages).any())
    finished_list = set(finished_list).union(set(finished_frame[finished_frame == True].index.values))
    remaining_opportunities = remaining_opportunities_frame[~remaining_opportunities_frame.Name.isin(finished_list)]

Finally, there’s a bit of tidying up to make sure that we don’t calculate anything for any of the opportunities that have died

dates = matplotlib.dates.date2num(sales_data_frame[sales_data_frame.Stage == success_stages[0]].sort('Days').Days.astype(dt))
revenue = sales_data_frame[sales_data_frame.Stage == success_stages[0]].sort('Days').Value.cumsum().values

plt.plot_date(dates, revenue, 'b-')
plt.title('Company revenue over time')

sales_data_frame.to_csv('generated_data.csv', index=False)

Quite a lot of work, really, just to generate some ‘likely looking’ sales data. Again, if you’ve got your own then use it! However, up till now I’ve just asserted that it’s likely looking. If you play around with it you can actually see some pretty interesting stuff. Firstly, with lots and lots of data point (N = 8000) you see that the company revenue growth looks very exponential:


However, it’s unlikely that you’ve got 8000 B2B transactions in your sales pipeline (if you do, kudos!). Let’s examine the situation where you’ve got 150:


And a once more with 150:


I think it’s interesting that, even though we’ve literally built this whole pipeline using exponential growth – we still look flat in a lot of places. Hopefully that might provide some solace if you’re struggling with sales and think you’re not hitting your exponential growth. Play around with the parameters and you can see what sort of effect increasing your conversion at various stages has on your overall revenue etc. Or just read the company names – they’re also pretty good.

Right, I’m counting that as broadly done. We’ve got sales data that nobody will mind me analysing in a public forum. Stay tuned/subscribe/email me to keep in touch for part 2. We’ll imagine that we’ve started with this data and we’ll try to assign a total value to our pipeline, and maybe even get onto predicting how many opportunities will progress in the next N days.

Finding Topics in Harry Potter using K-Means Clustering.

I’ll open up with the money-shot – these are all of the clusters that I was able to find using the whole Harry Potter and grouping by chapter:


Every cluster plotted separately.

That’s far too messy to be of any practical use so let’s have a look at a couple of those clusters in more detail:

Privet Drive Cluster

One of the clusters – a Dursley/Privet Drive heavy cluster!



This is a pretty Griphook/Goblin heavy cluster featured on the storyline in book 7.

Hopefully that’s piqued your interest enough to continue on scrolling and see how we got these clusters – and see the words that tie them all together! The code for generating these is on my Github ( and all the graphs and documents are contained there.

I went to a really interesting talk at PyData that was about Latent Dirichlet Allocation, a topic entirely new to me. I thought I’d love to apply it to my favourite book series – Harry Potter. However, that didn’t happen…instead you get this. A heavy rip off of an excellent post ( that walks through how to cluster documents using a bunch of techniques including K-Means.

Step 1

Get plain text copies of all the Harry Potter books and make sure they’re all formatted in roughly the same way. As is often the case, this step took bloody ages.

Step 2

I want a few different documents – more than 7 (the number of Harry Potter books for the heathens out there) but substantially less than the number of sentences in all 7 books. Treating each chapter as a separate document seemed to make most sense and so here I initialise everything I need and split my books into chapter.

So at this point we’ve nicely got ourselves a list of chapter titles and a list of the associated text (as a string).

Step 3

Now we’ve got our chapters we’re going to want to tokenise the text in them. Basically this means converting a string into discrete tokens – what we’d think of as words. The reason it’s got a fancy name and I’m being a bit careful about my terminology is because tokenisation also takes care of things like punctuation and isn’t as simple as just splitting a string into separate words. Having said that, I’ve basically taken the path of least resistance and so have gone with a very simple tokenisation scheme. I’m also going to skip over the pain of utf-8 encoding/decoding/recoding. I’ve basically just dropped any character that I’ve found in the least bit complicated.

Step 4

Next I’m going to perform TF-IDF on my chapters. Here, I convert each token into a number and look at how many times that token appears in a given document, and how many documents that token appears in overall. So in this instance I’m looking to see how often a given word appears in this particular chapter and in how many chapters throughout all 7 books the token appears in. This gives us an idea of how important/prominent a word is in a given chapter, taking into account how common the word is throughout all the chapters. As an example ‘Harry’ is likely to feature a lot in a given chapter but also is likely to feature in every chapter and so probably isn’t especially important to any given chapter’s classification. ‘Nicolas Flamel’, however, is going to appear a reasonable amount in a few chapters but not at all in all the rest. We therefore know that Nicolas Flamel is important in the chapters he does appear in.

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about the implementation of TF-IDF – sklearn has got it.

This gives me a large sparse matrix with the TF-IDF score for each word in each document as the entries. If you pay close attention to the parameters I’ve passed along to TfidfVectorizer as they are ripe for the changing. Firstly, `max_df=0.75` is saying that I don’t care about words that appear in more than 75% of the chapters. `min_df=0.05` is saying that I don’t care about words that appear in fewer than 5% of chapters. You can see I passed along my tokeniser and that I’m using English stop-words (that is, I’m removing the most common English words). Finally, I’m generating n-grams between 1 and 4.

For those uninitiated with n-grams they’re basically a way of splitting text up into handy little chunks. As an example, 3-grams of the following sentence:

“This is not the greatest song in the world”

would be:

“This is not”, “is not the”, “not the greatest”, “the greatest song”, e.t.c.

This allows me to pick out common phrases such as “Snape said” and “wizarding world”. Again, that’s a setting that is begging to be played about with.

Step 5

Performing K-means clustering we get output like so:

Cluster 18 words:
Top words: maxime,madame maxime,karkaroff,madame,hagrid,cedric,moody,krum,champions,tournament

Chapter: the hungarian horntail, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: the goblet of fire, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: the four champions, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: beauxbatons and durmstrang, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: the beginning, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: the yule ball, Book: gobletOfFire

which is obviously quite a handy little cluster. It’s successfully managed to only take chapters from one book (given that we’ve not allowed K-means access to the book information that is a bit of a triumph). For those aware of Harry Potter you’ll see this is a Triwizard Tournament heavy cluster. Another example:

Cluster 10 words:
Top words: wormtail,cold voice,voldemort,lord,cauldron,riddle,cedric,man,master,faithful

Chapter: the riddle house, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: flesh, blood, and bone, Book: gobletOfFire
Chapter: the death eaters, Book: gobletOfFire

Again, all the clusters are from one book – I’m counting that as a result. Added bonus, they’re not sequential chapters! I happen to know (by being a massive Harry Potter geek) that these chapters are towards the start and end of book 4 and focus heavily on Voldemort and Peter Pettigrew.

So far so good and in fact I could stop here but wouldn’t it be nice to visualise those clusters so we can see the topics we’ve picked out graphically? Even if you said no then it doesn’t really matter. I’m still going to do it.

Step 6

First things first, let’s plot all of the chapters on one graph and colour code them with the book from which they came. It’s not a great way of visualising clusters but it is a great way of seeing how everything is laid out:


A messy picture of all the chapters projected into 2d space.

Again, this section is shamelessly copied from the aforementioned blog but ultimately we’re projecting the cosine differences between the tf-idf matrix terms into 2-dimensional space. I declare a colour dictionary for each of the books and then rattle through the chapters plotting them.
I’m sure you’ll agree that’s far too messy for anybody to really do anything with. If you’re following along with the code you’ll see that next I generate the subplot figure shown at the top.

Finally, I create plots for each of the clusters – a few examples of which are:

Cluster 3 words:
Top words: umbridge,professor,dont,professor umbridge,snape,sirius,im,said hermione,harrys,youre

Chapter: the muggle born registration commission, Book: deathlyHallows
Chapter: the hogwarts high inquisitor, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: o.w.l.s, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: the second war begins, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: educational decree number twenty four, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: the centaur and the sneak, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: percy and padfoot, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: detention with dolores, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: occlumency, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: in the hogs head, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: out of the fire, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: professor umbridge, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: fight and flight, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: seen and unforeseen, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: career advice, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: snapes worst memory, Book: orderOfThePhoenix


Umbridge's cluster

Umbridge’s cluster

Everybody’s favourite professor – Dolores Umbridge!

And another:

Top words: hagrid,yeh,ter,said hagrid,professor,said hermione,malfoy,o,professor trelawney,trelawney

Chapter: professor trelawney's prediction, Book: prisonerOfAzkaban
Chapter: talons and tea leaves, Book: prisonerOfAzkaban
Chapter: the firebolt, Book: prisonerOfAzkaban
Chapter: diagon alley, Book: philosophersStone
Chapter: the foribidden forest, Book: philosophersStone
Chapter: the keeper of the keys, Book: philosophersStone
Chapter: norbert the norwegian ridgeback, Book: philosophersStone
Chapter: hagrids tale, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: the eye of the snake, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: grawp, Book: orderOfThePhoenix
Chapter: hermione's helping hand, Book: halfBloodPrince
Chapter: rita skeeter's scoop, Book: gobletOfFire

and visually:

Grawp's brother

Keeper of the Keys

The anti-Umbridge – it’s Hagrid’s cluster!

I’ll stop on the random copy/pasting of the clusters and stick them all on my Github – I think you’ve got the idea! All in all I’m pretty happy with how this has worked but I am very dependent on individual character names. I tried just looking at 2-grams but it usually just gave me ” said” with a few exceptions (‘wizarding world’, ‘said softly’, ‘death eater’, ‘godrics hollow’). I’ve also put almost zero effort into formatting the images – you know roughly what it’s meant to look like: having the pictures look good is an exercise I’m leaving to the reader’s imagination.

There’s loads more stuff I could do but I’m going to eat a chicken and go swimming so it’ll have to wait.

All was well.

Building a Search Engine for E-Commerce with Elasticsearch

This is a continuation of my previous post on search engines. Having been involved with using Elasticsearch to build a search engine for e-commerce, there are some interesting ideas which I have taken away from the experience. I will go through some of the design decisions made and problems encountered along the way.

Tweaking the Search Query
Elasticsearch provides a huge variety of different query types, each of which has a different approach to retrieving search results. For example, the term query will find documents containing a certain term, the fuzzy query will match documents containing terms which are approximately equal to a given term, the geo-shape query enables you to perform useful queries over documents containing longitude and latitude coordinates and many more. Any of these query types can be composed using compositional query types, such as the bool query.

When I talk about tweaking the search query, I mean choosing the query types to use and structuring our query in a way that will enable us to achieve optimal results for any kind of search over the product base. The two main properties of the search query which we are trying to optimise are:

  1. How to best determine which products match
  2. How to best determine the order (i.e. relative importance) of the matching products

One of the first options that we considered using was the query-string query: a query type that parses your query and decides what query types to use, and often does the sensible thing. For instance, jeans will match any document containing the term jeans, blue jeans will match any document containing both ‘blue’ and ‘jeans’ and "blue jeans" will match documents containing both terms together (an exact match). You can even make more complex searches, like blue jeans -(levi OR diesel) which will match documents containing ‘blue’ and ‘jeans’ but not the terms ‘levi’ or ‘diesel’. This all seems quite nice at first, but this query type can give very unexpected results if used incorrectly – for example t-shirt will match documents containing ‘t’, but will exclude all documents containing ‘shirt’. Of course, customers can’t be expected to understand why this happens or how to fix their query.

Another option is the multi-match query, which takes a list of fields to query over and builds a sequence of match queries. Similar to the query-string query, each field can each be given a different boost factor, which is used in determining relative importance of some terms matching a given field. You can also tweak the type of multi_match – e.g. whether the query terms must all be found in a single field, or can be found in different fields (but not necessarily in the same field). Here is an example of a multi_match query:

  "multi_match" : {
    "query":      "gladiator russell crowe",
    "type":       "best_fields",
    "fields":     [ "title^10", "actors^5", "description^1" ]

Here, we have used the boost operator (^) to indicate that the title field should be given the most importance. The query will still be matched against the description field, but matches in the title and actors fields will be given a higher score and will appear first in our result set. The best_fields type gives precedence when the query terms appear in the same field, but they don’t have to.

When matching across multiple fields, it can be tricky to figure out which documents are most relevant to the query. If we just consider which fields matched the query, then we won’t get optimal results. For example, if the query is ps4 controller and a document contains ‘ps4’ in the title field and ‘controller’ in the description field, then should it be given a higher score than a document which contains both terms in the title field but neither in the description field? The first document has more matching fields, but intuitively, the second document should surely be considered a more relevant result. Elasticsearch provides a solution to this: the disjunction-max (dis-max) query. This enables us to perform sub-queries over multiple fields and take the score of the best matching field (i.e. the maximum scoring sub-query), instead of summing the scores from each matching sub-query. In practice, this often yields better results and is in fact the default behaviour for the multi-match query.

We used the multi-match query successfully in production for quite some time, but ultimately decided to switch to using the common terms query. This is an interesting query type which provides not only a way to determine stop words dynamically, but also a way to not completely disregard stop words at search time. When using the multi-match query, we assigned a stop word filter to each field in our mapping, which uses a pre-defined list of stop words to remove the most common and semantically useless words from the index. This is usually good because those words don’t add much meaning and make searching the index slower. But is this always a good thing? Consider the video game ‘The Last Of Us’. A search for the last of us would result in all products containing the term ‘last’ and those products would not be ordered very sensibly, since the other three terms (all stop words) would have been thrown away. In this scenario, the common terms query is much more effective. Instead of removing stop words, it uses term frequencies across the whole index to determine which terms are important and which occur frequently enough to be considered stop words. In this example, ‘last’ would likely be deemed an important term, while ‘the’, ‘of’ and ‘us’ would be deemed less important. The common terms query then splits searching into two steps:

  1. Use the important terms to determine the result set
  2. Use the less important terms to order the result set

This way, stop words are not completely thrown away, but they are not considered until after the product result set has been determined. This fits very nicely with the two search query properties we are trying to optimise towards. To keep the cross-field search benefits of the multi-match, the common terms query can be wrapped inside a dis-max and have a boost factor applied to each field:

  "dis_max" : {
    "tie_breaker" : 0.3,
    "queries" : [
       "common": {
          "title": {
          "query": "the last of us",
          "boost": 10,
          "cutoff_frequency": 0.001
        "common": {
          "studio": {
          "query": "the last of us",
          "boost": 3,
          "cutoff_frequency": 0.001
        "common": {
          "description": {
          "query": "the last of us",
          "boost": 1,
          "cutoff_frequency": 0.001

With this query, we saw an uplift in product page visits from search and more customers were clicking products returned in the first two rows of their search results. This demonstrates that our use of the common terms query was enabling customers to find the most relevant products more easily.

Customising the Score Function
As we’ve seen, Elasticsearch provides us with many clever ways to score search results such that the most relevant products appear first. But in e-commerce, there are some factors that are worth considering outside of how relevant the product itself is. This includes things like:

  • How popular is the product?
  • Is the product in stock?
  • Was the product released recently?
  • How profitable are sales of the product?

For example, if a product is extremely popular at the moment, then perhaps it should be boosted above other search results. Or, if a product is out of stock, we probably don’t want to show it in the first few search results.

To factor in this information, we can design our own scoring function which will adjust the scores computed by our Elasticsearch query. This is done by wrapping the main search query in a custom_score query. We can then provide a script which modifies the original score (denoted by _score) by using fields from the index and a set of parameters. This way, we could index a field such as ‘product_popularity’ into our product documents, and then boost the _score for more popular products. We would make it possible to assign different levels of importance to each factor with an adjustable weighting for each parameter. Normalisation is also important to ensure we operate on the same scale for each factor. Here’s an example of this with just the product popularity factor:

"custom_score": {
    "params": {
        "scoreWeighting": 2,
        "popularityWeighting": 5,
        "maxPopularity": x
    "query": {...},
    "script": "scoreWeighting * _score + (popularityWeighting * (doc['popularity'].value / maxPopularity))"

In practice, our score function considers a lot more than the product popularity and is dynamically generated by the search service using a set of configurable parameters which can be changed at any time without a redeployment.

Achieving Faceted Search
Faceted search is a way of enhancing the search experience by enabling the user to navigate their search results by applying a set of filters. Faceted navigation is now seen on the majority of online retail sites and probably looks very familiar to you:

An example of faceted search

An example of faceted search

A facet is a set of filters. In the above example, there are three facets: category, sub-category and price. Sometimes, more complex faceting may be desirable – for instance, you might want it so when you apply the ‘DVD’ category filter, you are then given a choice of movie genres to filter by. This is called a nested facet, as it is a facet within a facet.

With Elasticsearch, it is fairly painless to set up faceted search. First, you will need to have in your mapping a non-analysed version of each field you want to facet on:

    "category": {
        "type":     "string",
        "index":    "not_analyzed"

We use the not_analyzed setting because at index time we want the field to be mapped as an exact field, so that later, the filter options (in this case categories) will appear exactly as they were indexed.

Now, at query time, we can append a terms aggregation to our query:

    "aggs" : {
        "categories" : {
            "terms" : { "field" : "category" }

Our response will now contain all the information we need about categories for the given query. Elasticsearch will give us a breakdown of counts for each type of category within the result set for our query:

 "aggregations" : {
        "categories" : {
            "doc_count_error_upper_bound": 0, 
            "sum_other_doc_count": 0, 
            "buckets" : [ 
                    "key" : "Merchandise",
                    "doc_count" : 856
                    "key" : "Clothing",
                    "doc_count" : 455
                ... etc ...

Now, when a user clicks on a category, such as Clothing, we usually want our search results to be filtered to display only clothing, however the facet counts for categories should remain unchanged – the Merchandise facet count should still be 856. To achieve this, we can use Elasticsearch filters instead of extending the query. In this example, we would append a terms filter on the category field, with the term ‘Clothing’. This will achieve the behaviour we want because filters are not considered when computing the facet counts – the search results will be filtered, but the facet counts will remain unchanged.

Implementing Instant Search
Instant search is where the search engines assists you with your search while you type. There are several variants of this:

  1. Displaying products relevant to what the customer has typed so far
  2. Displaying search suggestions – predicting what the customer is going to type next (AKA auto-complete)
  3. Detecting spelling mistakes and suggesting corrections

It is actually possible to achieve all of the above with a single Elasticsearch query! We achieved this by using an n-grams analyzer for auto-complete, a shingle analyzer for search suggestions and Elasticsearch’s in-built term and phrase suggester for spelling correction. Check out my colleague’s post here for a complete example of how to achieve this.

Handling Distributed Search
Elasticsearch is an excellent example of a sophisticated distributed system which hides much of the inherent complexity from the user. Behind the scenes, problems like partitioning documents into shards, balancing shards across the cluster, replicating data to maintain fault-tolerance and efficiently routing requests between nodes are handled. All you have to do is configure a couple of settings in your elasticsearch.yaml – such as the number of shards to split each index into and the number of replicas to keep of each shard.

While configuring distributed search is pretty easy, there are some more complex issues which should be addressed. One of these issues is: how can we make a change to our mapping (i.e. the index) without causing any downtime to our search engine. For an e-commerce company, any form of downtime translates directly to a loss in revenue, and with our large product base, re-populating the search indices is a lengthy process which takes several hours. This problem can be solved using index aliases – an Elasticsearch feature which enables us to set up something similar to a symbolic link – an index alias which always points to a live and fully prepared index. For example, we can set up an alias, products which points to a specific version of our products index:

PUT /products_v1/_alias/products

Now, we can make a change to our mapping and populate a new index, products_v2, wait until we are satisfied that all data has been indexed and shards balanced, before finally switching our alias to point to the new index.

There are some problems that come with the distributed nature of Elasticsearch. Imagine performing a search, getting 10 search results in the response, then refreshing the page and seeing 50 search results. How can search be non-deterministic?! Well, this is a problem that we encountered. This problem comes about as a result of Elasticsearch making optimisations and using approximate term frequencies to determine results. Each shard has a subset of documents in the index, and by default, Elasticsearch will use the shard’s term frequencies as an approximation for the actual term frequencies. When using the common terms query as described earlier, a term may fall under the threshold for being considered a stop word on one shard, but may be over the threshold on another shard. So, depending on which node a query gets routed to, we can end up with different results. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem as term frequencies should be very similar across all shards, providing there is enough data and the data is evenly distributed. But, if it does become a problem, full accuracy can be achieved by changing the default query type to dfs_query_and_fetch, by appending &search_type=dfs_query_then_fetch to the search URI. This query type performs an additional round-trip, collecting term frequencies from all nodes and calculating a global term frequency, before sending the query to all shards and computing results using the global frequencies. This ensures results are always accurate, but comes at the cost of some additional latency.

A similar problem can be seen in faceting. Facet counts are computed on each shard and then aggregated on the node designated as coordinator. If, say, our request is for the top 10 terms within a facet, then each node will return it’s locally computed top 10 facet elements. In cases where there are more than 10 terms, accuracy can be lost. To address this problem, a recent version of Elasticsearch introduced a shard_size attributed which can be set on the facet query, and specifies the number of elements each shard should return. This is separate from the size attribute – i.e. the number of elements we actually want. Asking each shard to return more elements is of course more expensive, but will give higher accuracy when it is needed.


  • It is hard to find a query which works well for every search. If there is a particular search found to yield bad results, it can be easy to optimise towards improving and fixing that search, but then other searches end up suffering as a result. When making changes to the search query, always think: will this work well for both general searches and specific searches?
  • Use filters for faceting, to filter search results without affecting facet counts. Also, Elasticsearch filters are (by default) cached, so can boost performance.
  • The three types of instant search: product suggestions, search suggestions and spelling corrections can be achieved with a single Elasticsearch query – providing the title field is configured with both a shingles and n-grams analyzer.
  • You should always A/B test whenever you make a change to the search experience. It can be invaluable to have good reporting on things like ‘searches which yield no results’ to easily catch problem with changes to the query.
  • Use index aliases to make large changes while maintaining zero-downtime.
  • There can be non-deterministic results with a distributed search engine, but with Elasticsearch these problems can be resolved at the cost of additional latency.
  • The search experience makes a big difference. It not only enables customers to discover the products they are looking for, but a well-tuned search experience can also can help them discover things they weren’t explicitly searching for. We saw significant boosts in revenue from search every time we made improvements to the search engine.

What Makes Search Engines Special?

Having spent over six months working as part of a small team to design and build a new search engine for one of Europe’s largest online retailers, I found myself learning a lot about the inner workings of modern search engines. It was my first real exposure to search – a technology which is really central to everyone’s online experiences.

Search is more complex than it may seem at first. An e-commerce search engine is built to enable customers to find the products that they are looking for. A customer will search for a product, perhaps by name, and the search engine will check the database of products and return those that match the search query. Perhaps you could write a search engine with a simple SQL query:

SELECT * FROM products WHERE product_title LIKE '%{search_query}%'

This may seem to yield decent results for some search queries – but there are many problems with such an approach.

  • Exact substring matches only. A search for ‘matrix dvd’ won’t match ‘The Matrix (1999) – DVD’.
  • No way to order the results. What if the query is ‘xbox’ and 100 products have ‘xbox’ in their title? Xbox games, xbox accessories and xbox’s themselves. Our query will find these products, but we have no way to order our results based on the most relevant matches.
  • Only searching a single field. What if we want to enable our customers to search for authors, directors, brands etc? Sure, we could change our query to look in multiple fields, but surely those fields shouldn’t be given the same importance as the product title, right?
  • No support for synonyms. A search for ‘football’ won’t match any products with ‘soccer’ in their title.
  • No stop word filtering. These are common words like ‘and’, ‘the’ and ‘of’. These words are usually not important in a search, especially in determining which products match a query. When we are searching just on product title, the negative effect of stop words is not so noticeable. But imagine if we want to extend our search engine to search over a larger body of text, such as a product description. In this case, most of the products in our database will contain stop words in the description, and it certainly doesn’t mean they should match the query.
  • No stemming. This is the process of truncating a word to its simplest form, in order to extract its root meaning. For example, ‘fisher’, ‘fishing’ and ‘fished’ all have similar meanings. These words could all be stemmed to ‘fish’, so that a search for any one of these terms will match all products related to fish.
  • Term frequencies are not considered. The frequency of a term in the corpus (i.e. across the entire database of products) can actually give us a lot of information about how important each term in a query is. If you consider a search for ‘game of thrones’. There are three terms in this query, one of which is a stop word. Now imagine that we are a game retailer and all of our products are games. Many of the products in our database will match the term ‘game’ while only a few will match the term ‘thrones’. This is because the term frequency for ‘game’ across our entire database is a lot higher than it is for ‘thrones’. With this knowledge, we know that ‘thrones’ is the more important term – products which match this word are more relevant.
  • Typical SQL databases won’t scale. As our product base and the volume of queries per second grows, standard databases will quickly become slow – partly because they are not designed for full-text search, where we are searching bodies of text for partial matches.

All of these problems can be solved with ideas which have been developed in the field of information retrieval. There are two key concepts which give modern day search engines their speed and quality:

  1. Indexing – An index is a data structure which enables us to perform blazingly fast searches within our database for documents which match a query (in the e-commerce case, a document corresponds to some information describing a product). Without an index, we would have to look in every document and compare every term with our query – a slow and inefficient process. Every document that we want to be able to search over is indexed. To index a document, every field of the document is broken down into a set of tokens and these tokens are added to the index. This process is called tokenization. The way tokens are extracted will vary depending on what we want to achieve, but tokens are often stemmed words, with stop words omitted. Using our earlier example, if a document contains the word ‘fishing’, then perhaps the (stemmed) token ‘fish’ would be added to our index.
  2. Relevance Scoring – When executing a search query, the first step is to find all documents which match the query using our index. However, having found these documents, a search engine needs to give each document a score based on how well it matches the query – so that the most relevant results appear first in your search results. There are multiple ways to do relevancy scoring, but one of the most common ways is known as TF/IDF (term frequency – inverse document frequency). The idea is that, if a term from the query appears more times in a document, then that document should receive a higher score. But, if that term appears many times in our corpus (i.e. it is a more common term), then the document should receive a lower score. Combining these two ideas, we can do some linear algebra to find the most similar documents to our query. For a detailed explanation of this, check out this article.

In the diagram below I have tried my best to depict the processes of indexing (at index time) and document retrieval (at query time).

The processes of indexing and retrieval in a typical search engine

The processes of indexing and retrieval in a typical search engine


Today, two of the most widely used general purpose search frameworks are Apache Solr and Elasticsearch. Both are distributed search engines written on top of Apache Lucene, a high performance full-text search library which provides implementations of the above concepts. Solr is extremely mature and has long been the industry standard, but in the last few years Elasticsearch has received a lot of attention for a number of reasons: it is based on more modern principles, it is designed to deal with very large amounts of data and without the legacy constraints of Solr, the development community were able to make very rapid progress. In our case, (with our desire to always use the latest technologies) we decided to go with Elasticsearch.

In my next post, I will discuss some ideas, best practices and lessons learned from using Elasticsearch to build a search engine for e-commerce.

Emailing multiple inline images in Python

Hi all,

Yet again, sorry for the lack of blog posts. In my defence, I’ve been keeping busy what with the Mining of Massive Data Sets course on Coursera and a few Kaggle problems amongst other distractions. I legit have at least double-digit subscriber numbers so to those people, thanks! Ignoring all that, today I’m going to share with you something I had to puzzle out myself due to lack of information online about it. In sharing, hopefully the next poor schmuck who has to do this will just be able to copy what I’ve done.

We’ll look at building a fairly robust email; one which will feature multiple inline images and multiple attachments. We’ll do the whole thing using Gmail because it’s good and easy to use Gmail and everybody can create one. The original version I wrote used Outlook and integrated Windows security but not everybody has that so Gmail it is. As a bit of background, I used this as part of a reporting pipeline that queries the Google Analytics API. I grab a whole bunch of data, filter and arrange it, combine it with another data source and produce some tables/graphs. These get saved down into a directory every day and my emailer will come along, pick up all the relevant images and hey presto – you’ve got a fairly cool reporting pipeline.

First things first, this is how you send lots of basic plain-text emails.

import smtplib

with open('credentials.csv', 'rb') as f:
    gmail_user = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]
    gmail_pwd = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]

def send_email(msg, gmail_user, gmail_pwd, to_list):
    mailServer = smtplib.SMTP('', 587)
    mailServer.login(gmail_user, gmail_pwd)
    mailServer.sendmail(gmail_user, to_list, msg)

for i in range(100):
    send_email('Hello everybody', gmail_user, gmail_pwd, [''])

Would the below code send 100 of the same email to the same person? Yes. Does that have the potential to be abused for perhaps-hilarious purposes. Of course. I’ll leave that up to you.

Next, let’s take a fairly easy step and attach a few files.

from email.mime.multipart import MIMEMultipart
from email.header         import Header
import smtplib
from email.MIMEBase import MIMEBase
from email import Encoders
import os

with open('credentials.csv', 'rb') as f:
    gmail_user = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]
    gmail_pwd = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]

def attach_file(filename):
    part = MIMEBase('application', 'octect-stream')
    part.set_payload(open(filename, 'rb').read())
    part.add_header('Content-Disposition', 'attachment; filename=%s' % os.path.basename(filename))
    return part

def generate_email(gmail_user, to_list, data_path):
    msg = MIMEMultipart('related')
    msg['Subject'] = Header(u'Test Attachment Email', 'utf-8')
    msg['From'] = gmail_user
    msg['To'] = ','.join(to_list)
    return msg

def send_email(msg, gmail_user, gmail_pwd, to_list):
    mailServer = smtplib.SMTP('', 587)
    mailServer.login(gmail_user, gmail_pwd)
    mailServer.sendmail(gmail_user, to_list, msg.as_string())

email_msg = generate_email(gmail_user, [''], 'test_data.txt')
send_email(email_msg, gmail_user, gmail_pwd, [''])

All you need to do to allow multiple attachments is call the msg.attach(attach_file()) method a few times. Well, as many times as you’d like attachments would be ideal.

Glorious – so we can email multiple people with multiple attachments. You could argue at this point that, if we can attach the images we’re looking to send then surely we don’t need to create inline images and so we can cease this madness. If you can argue that point successfully then you’re better at arguing than me. Something to do with Blackberry compatibility, looking nicer and “can’t you just not argue and do it for once – is it possible or is it not?”

So we’ll be embedding images to the above email – the way to do so is…

import cgi
import uuid
from email.mime.multipart import MIMEMultipart
from email.mime.text      import MIMEText
from email.mime.image     import MIMEImage
from email.header         import Header
import os
import smtplib
from email.MIMEBase import MIMEBase
from email import Encoders

with open('credentials.csv', 'rb') as f:
    gmail_user = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]
    gmail_pwd = f.readline().strip().split(',')[1]

def attach_image(img_dict):
    with open(img_dict['path'], 'rb') as file:
    msg_image = MIMEImage(, name = os.path.basename(img_dict['path']))
    msg_image.add_header('Content-ID', '<{}>'.format(img_dict['cid']))
    return msg_image

def attach_file(filename):
    part = MIMEBase('application', 'octect-stream')
    part.set_payload(open(filename, 'rb').read())
    part.add_header('Content-Disposition', 'attachment; filename=%s' % os.path.basename(filename))
    return part

def generate_email(gmail_user, to_list, data_path_1, data_path_2,img1,img2):
    msg =MIMEMultipart('related')
    msg['Subject'] = Header(u'Images and Words', 'utf-8')
    msg['From'] = gmail_user
    msg['To'] = ','.join(to_list)
    msg_alternative = MIMEMultipart('alternative')
    msg_text = MIMEText(u'Image not working - maybe next time', 'plain', 'utf-8')
    msg_html = u'<h1>Some images coming up</h1>'
    msg_html += u'<h3>Image 1</h3><div dir="ltr">''<img src="cid:{cid}" alt="{alt}"><br></div>'.format(alt=cgi.escape(img1['title'], quote=True), **img1)
    msg_html += u'<h3>Image 2</h3><div dir="ltr">''<img src="cid:{cid}" alt="{alt}"><br></div>'.format(alt=cgi.escape(img2['title'], quote=True), **img2)
    msg_html = MIMEText(msg_html, 'html', 'utf-8')
    return msg

def send_email(msg, gmail_user, gmail_pwd, to_list):
    mailServer = smtplib.SMTP('', 587)
    mailServer.login(gmail_user, gmail_pwd)
    mailServer.sendmail(gmail_user, to_list, msg.as_string())

img1 = dict(title = 'Image 1', path = 'test_image_1.png', cid = str(uuid.uuid4()))
img2 = dict(title = 'Image 2', path = 'test_image_2.png', cid = str(uuid.uuid4()))

email_msg = generate_email(gmail_user, [''], 'test_data.txt', 'test_data_2.txt', img1, img2)
send_email(email_msg, gmail_user, gmail_pwd, [''])

So all I need to do is make sure I’m downloading the right images and data files everyday and putting them in the correct directory. Ordinarily I’d do that using wget on Unix but as I’ve done the rest in Python I’ll include the download in the script. This way the script should work irrespective of OS – a handy little bonus.

Get that run and you’ll see a lovely set of inline images, all the attachments as they were and we’re done. Nothing too complicated I hope and we’ve made a nice little ’email image aggregation program’ thingy.

As a possible extension I think this could be better used to annoy/amuse and so you could create an ’email digest’ – make something that automatically goes on a few websites, downloads an image and then sticks them all inline in an email. It’ll also download a few data files and attach them. Let’s say I really like the NASA Astronomy picture of the day (I do), the XKCD comic (I do), the Google doodle (I do) and a CSV of the week’s weather forecast (I do not). I could easily set up a bash script (using wget) and a cronjob that would get the images/csv files each day and put them into a directory. Equally, if we wanted to play nicely with Windows as well as *nix, we could use Python to download the images. I’m not going to build this as it’s not really a problem that needs solving (as far as I see it).

Peace out yo.

Real-Time Analytics with Elasticsearch

When you are running a website used by thousands of people, it should go without saying that very valuable data can be collected about your users and they way they interact with your site. This usually comes in the form of click-stream data – which is effectively logs written by your webserver on every interaction (or click) made by a user who is navigating your site. An e-retailer can use this data for a many purposes, for example: analysing how users interact with the site and what causes them to place an order, monitoring the performance of a new advertising campaign, seeing how users respond to a new feature and detecting problems such as pages which result in an error 404. For many of these purposes, raw data can be crunched through a batch processing system such as Hadoop, but for some purposes it is beneficial have real-time information and statistics about how users are interacting with the site right now.

Imagine you are in e-retailer in the process of rolling out a brand new feature, such an improved search engine. As soon as this feature goes live, it will have an immediate impact on the user experience and the products people are interacting with. It may even change the way people search and the terms they search for. Having real-time statistics such as the number of page views, searches, product visits from searches and product orders from searches gives confidence that the new experience is having a positive impact, or at least not causing any serious problems. This article discusses our experience with building a data store to persist and query over click-stream data in real-time.

For the backing datastore of our analytics framework there were a huge number of possible solutions. We began by considering SQL, but as we are dealing with millions of click-stream events every day SQL can quickly become an expensive and not-so-scalable option. Ultimately we made a choice between MongoDB and Elasticsearch. Both are open source, distributed NoSQL document stores – Elasticsearch is built on top of Apache Lucene (a high performance JVM based search engine) and MongoDB is written entirely in C++. Elasticsearch provides a very clean and compact RESTful API which enables you to use JSON over HTTP to specify your configuration, index documents and perform queries. We found that the query API provided by Elasticsearch provides considerably more flexibility when it comes to faceting and search. An example of this is when you want to calculate a count, total or average and see how it changes over time. For instance, if we want to count the number of searches performed on our site by hour, the date histogram facet makes this easy. The following Elasticsearch query will return a set of key value pairs for each site, where the key is an hourly timestamp and the value is a count of search events:

  "query": {
    "match": {
      "eventType": "search"
  "facets": {
    "siteId": {
      "date_histogram": {
        "field": "timestamp",
        "interval": "hour"

Doing this kind of aggregation with MongoDB is of course possible, but we found these queries are simply quicker and easier to write with Elasticsearch. Plus the API makes it very easy to query the store with a REST client. Of course there are advantages to using MongoDB – for instance at the time of writing there is far more documentation available, MongoDB provides more flexibility as the document structure can be changed at any time and also MongoDB is particularly good at facilitating backup and recovery. Since we were not looking for a primary data store, these advantages didn’t outweigh Elasticsearch’s cleaner API.

One of the first decisions to make when using Elasticsearch is how to structure your indices. In our case, we wanted to capture several different types of events, each of which would have different associated attributes. Page visits, searches, basket adds among other events are all logged by our web servers in real-time. This data then needs to be sent to Elasticsearch and indexed. We decided to use time-based Elasticsearch indices. This means that every day, a new index is created and all data for that day is stored within that index. The index name takes the format ‘EVENT_TYPE-YYYYMMDD’. There are a few advantages to doing this:

  • It’s easy to query over only the events and days we want. Elasticsearch supports wildcards matching for the index name – so if we send a query to ‘searches-201401*’ our query will be executed over all the search events which took place in January.
  • When we want to delete old data, we simply need to delete old indices. Clearing out old data can then be done easily and automatically using a daily cron job. No need to use time-based indices, which could add significant overhead.
  • Routing and sharding can be configured on a per index basis. This makes it possible for us to configure which servers should handle which days. For example, if a server is running out of disk space, we can just configure shards for future indices to avoid that server.
  • Using Elasticsearch templates, we can configure a mapping and settings which are automatically applied to new indices. For example, any index created with a name matching ‘searches-*’ will have a specific mapping and settings applied to it.

With a good idea of how the data store would be structured, the next step was to get data from our web logs into Elasticsearch, in real-time. This process involves aggregating log files, and then parsing and indexing the log events into Elasticsearch documents. We developed a Java application to serve this purpose – sending bulk updates to our Elasticsearch cluster every few seconds. The simplified data pipeline is pictured below, although we have since replaced log aggregation with Kafka, a distributed messaging framework.

The flow of data from web servers to Elasticsearch

The flow of data from web servers to Elasticsearch

We soon encountered some difficulties when writing queries over our data. One of the biggest difficulties comes when running queries over multiple indices. Each of our event types has different attributes, for example: search terms and search engine information appear on search events, but not on product visit events. What if we want to count the number of product visits resulting from searches for the term ‘xbox’? Well, we want to perform a ‘join’ operation, something which would be quite easy to achieve in SQL:

SELECT * FROM product_visits p INNER JOIN searches s ON (p.userId = s.userId) WHERE p.referrer_url = s.url AND s.term = 'xbox'

With Elasticsearch, things are not so simple. We can easily query several indices at once, but how can we specify that we want to find all product visit documents which have a matching search document?

Solution 1: Use parent child relationships
Elasticsearch enables us to specify a parent child relationship between document types. For instance, we could have two types of document: product_interaction documents (which contain event types product_visit and product_order) and cause documents (which contain event types like search). We could then configure a parent-child relationship between causes and product_interactions, such that each product_interaction is the child of a single cause. This structure enables us to use the built in ‘has_parent’ query to find all product visits that resulted from a specific search:

POST searches-201401*/_search

  "query": {
    "has_parent": {
      "parent_type": "cause",
      "query": {
        "match": {
          "searchTerm": "xbox"

This solution is flexible. The two document types are completely independent of each other – if we want, we can update one without affecting the other. To aid performance, Elasticsearch ensures that children are physically stored in the same shard as their parent. However there is still a performance cost to using the parent child relation and we found that our query speed sometimes suffered. There is also a big limitation to this design – there is no support for more complex relationships, such as grandparent->parent->child. So, we would be unable to add further relationships (e.g. between product_orders and product_interactions) and model the full chain of events.

Solution 2: Add extra information at indexing time
Our end solution which solves both of the above problems is simply to move the logic surrounding relationships into the application layer. State corresponding to recent user activity (for example, searches in the last ten minutes) are stored in memory in our indexing application. Then, when product visit events are received, the in-memory state is checked and the ’cause’ of the product visit can be found. Then, when indexing the product visit document, extra attributes are indexed within the document such as the search terms which led to the product being visited. If we want to track more events in the train, such as product orders, then attributes that were added to the product visit document are copied into the product order document. This means that at query time, we don’t need to search over multiple document types and perform a join – all the information we need is contained in a single document type. This solution gives us very fast query performance at the cost of higher storage and memory requirements – since document size is greater and some information is duplicated.

With this setup, we are able to comfortably query over a month’s worth of data within just a couple of seconds – and that’s with a single node cluster. One problem we encountered is that it is possible to write incorrect or very computationally demanding queries and no matter how complex or demanding the query, Elasticsearch will attempt the computation. If it does not have sufficient resources to complete the query it will fail with an OutOfMemory error and the only way to recover from this is to restart Elasticsearch on the failed node(s). Aside from this, our experience with Elasticsearch for near real-time analytics has been very positive.

Building a Recommendation Service on AWS with Mahout

Hi all,

Those (two) of my regular readers will know I frequently curse my fool-of-a-took laptop. With this in mind I’ve been meaning to write a tutorial on working with Amazon’s web services for when you don’t have the hardware you need. This isn’t that post but I will assume you’ve already got a cluster to hand with all the bits and bobs you need installed.

If you don’t, don’t worry about it (for now) – I’ll do a post on how to get one of those set up at a later date. For now I’d like to talk about collaborative filtering. This is one of the most prevalent techniques for generating recommendations and with good reason – it’s pretty good. It’s quite a common sense method:

I know that person A likes items 1, 2 and 3 but not item 4.
I know that person B likes item 4 and 3 but not 1 or 2.
I know that person C likes item 1  but not 2, 3 or 4.
I know that person D doesn’t like item 4 – which of the items 1, 2 or 3 should I recommend them?

I’m sure most people reading this will say we should recommend them item 1, then probably item 2 then 3? Certainly item 1 with highest preference. Now if you deconstruct your thought process in coming up with that recommendation I’d wager (not a lot) that it’d be akin to the collaborative filtering algorithm.

Based on the behaviour of people A, B and C we can start to get an idea about which items are rated favourably by the same people versus those that aren’t. User-based collaborative filtering is about finding similar users to person D and looking at what they liked. Item-based collaborative filtering is about finding similar items to the ones person D has rated positively and recommending those.

There are lots of nice articles on collaborative filtering – more often than not when it comes to machine learning I end up recommending Andrew Ng material and this is no exception – check out his machine learning course on Coursera. There’s a whole lecture on collaborative filtering and it’s boss. If my explanation wasn’t enough (if you’re serious about this sort of thing, it shouldn’t be) check out his lectures on the subject and read around on the mathematical details of it all. Make sure you polish up on your linear algebra – you’ll have very large sparse matrices heading your way!

Also, please note that this whole post is just a re-imagining of this post by Amazon: Recommendations using EMR – I liked it and thought I’d give it a go myself with a different data set and technologies I was more familiar with. Now on with the show…

The Data Set

I’m going to be using a publicly available data set containing user ratings of books gathered on Amazon – dataset available here: Book Data Set

There are three files in there – one with all the details of the books, one with all the details of the users and finally one with all the user ratings. Don’t worry about downloading them yet if you’re following this as a tutorial/example – we’ll stick that bit in a script later on.

The Cluster Set-Up

Given that I’m on the free tier and I don’t use AWS at work (we’ve got a nice cluster that handles all our data just fine thank you) I’m a bit ‘over-compute’ happy at the moment and so I’m going to use a 5 node cluster (1 master node and 4 slaves). This isn’t really necessary but then nor is this as a piece of work so I’m not that bothered by practicality at this point. The benefit of using Amazon’s Elastic Mapreduce is that the nodes all come with Hadoop (& Hive/Pig/Mahout/whatever) installed and set up so you don’t have to bother with any of that.

Building a Service

I want to demonstrate how easy it is to turn this sort of thing into a recommendations service (instead of a one-off bit of analysis). Now I’m going to stress that I’m setting this up as an offline batch machine learning method and that there are a few steps I’d change if I were actually setting this up as a real, ‘production’, service.

I’m going to use a Redis database because I’ve got a reasonable amount of memory on these boxes (Redis is an in-memory key-value store), because Redis is really really quick and because I’m used to using Redis with Python. Redis will store the output of my collaborative filtering and I’ll stick a lightweight web framework (Flask) on top of it. This will allow a client to retrieve recommendations for a given user as well as delete them or overwrite them. I’ve decided to add the latter two functions because we don’t live in a perfect world.

I’ll also write a script that’ll update the books, users and ratings files and stick it on a cronjob to run every day. That way, by copying this method you’ll end up with a reasonably scalable, reasonably fast and reasonably up-to-date recommendation service. It’s not the best one out there (heck, it might be the worst) but it goes to show how simple these things are to set up given all the tools that are already written…

The Code

Firstly, we’ll create the cluster using the Elastic Mapreduce CLI:

./elastic-mapreduce --create --alive --name recommendation-service --num-instances 5 --master-instance-type m1.large --slave-instance-type m2.xlarge --ami-version 3.1 --ssh

The --ssh means that once the cluster has been created and all the necessary bits and bobs installed we ssh into the master node

Extracting the data set

sed '1d;' BX-Book-Ratings.csv | tr ';' ',' | tr -d '"' > Book-Ratings.csv}

Unfortunately for us, we’ve got a bit of work to do – the ‘out of the box’ Mahout recommendation algorithm requires user and book ids to be integers and ISBNs are not. To get around this, we use this nifty little script:


import sys
import re

isbn_dictionary = {}

counter = 0

with open('Book-Ratings.csv', 'rb') as f:
    with open('New-Book-Ratings.csv', 'w') as g:
        with open('Book-Mappings.csv', 'w') as h:
            for line in f:
                    user, book, rating = line.split(',')
                    index = isbn_dictionary[book]
                    isbn_dictionary[book] = counter
                    index = counter
                    h.write("%s,%dn" % (book, counter))
                    counter += 1
                g.write("%d,%d,%dn" % (int(user), index, int(rating)))

Now we’ve got data in the format our Mahout recommender is expecting let’s put it in HDFS and run our algorithm

hadoop fs -put New-Book-Ratings.csv /New-Book-Ratings.csv
mahout recommenditembased --input /New-Book-Ratings.csv --output recommendations --numRecommendations 10 --similarityClassname SIMILARITY_COSINE

Now we play the waiting game…
Actually, while that’s running, open up another SSH session to that terminal and run these commands

sudo easy_install redis flask
tar xzf redis-2.8.13.tar.gz
cd redis-2.8.13
./src/redis-server &

Now Redis is installed and running and we’ve got the necessary Python libraries we can create the following server…

import redis
import os

isbn_dictionary = {}

with open('Book-Mappings.csv', 'rb') as f:
    for line in f:
        isbn, counter = line.split(',')
        isbn_dictionary[int(counter)] = isbn

r = redis.StrictRedis(host='localhost', port=6379, db=0)

p = os.popen('hadoop fs -cat recommendations/part*')

for recommendation in p:
    user, recommendations = recommendation.split('t')
    recommendations = [entry.split(':')[0] for entry in recommendations.replace('[', '').replace(']','').split(',')]
    recommendations = [isbn_dictionary[int(entry)] for entry in recommendations]
    r.set(int(user), recommendations)

Now we’ve populated our database with all the recommendations we generated with our Mahout job. Now we’ll set something up (called to return these items to a client (as well as allow modifications to be made).

import redis
from flask import Flask
r = redis.StrictRedis(host='localhost', port=6379, db=0)

app = Flask(__name__)

@app.route('/user/<user_id>', methods = ['GET', 'POST', 'PUT', 'DELETE'])
def restful_api(user_id):
    if request.method == 'GET':
        recommendations = r.get(int(user_id))
        return recommendations if recommendations else "User %d does not exist" % int(user_id)
    elif request.method == 'POST':
        if request.headers['Content-Type'] == 'application/json':
            r.set(int(user_id), request.json)
            return "Successfully set recommendations for user %d" % int(user_id)
            return False
    elif request.method == 'DELETE':
        if r.exists(int(user_id)):
            return "Successfully deleted recommendations for user %d" % int(user_id)
            return "User %d does not exist" % int(user_id)
    elif request.method == 'PUT':
        if request.headers['Content-Type'] == 'application/json':
            r.set(int(user_id), request.json)
            return "Successfully set recommendations for user %d" % int(user_id)
            return "Require JSON put"
        return "No idea what you've done here, but don't do it again"

if __name__ == '__main__':

Now we’ve built our client-facing recommendations service let’s ‘deploy’ it and give it a test

python &
curl -X GET localhost:5000/user/277965
curl -X DELETE localhost:5000/user/277965
curl -X GET localhost:5000/user/277965


We’ve not done anything that tricky but in a fairly short time we’ve managed to build something that’d be at least part way useful to a small business somewhere looking for recommendations for their users. It’s not a great leap from this and a genuine production ready system – you don’t need 5 Hadoop nodes running all the time for a 20 minute Mahout job and I’m uncomfortable using Flask and local files for a serious system. As such, you’d likely put together a couple of nodes, each with their own copy of the recommendations set in memory. One of them would create a cluster, get any new data a generate the data set as often as you saw fit – communicating it to the other node. Finally, you’d add a few more actions to the server and make sure it could be called by whichever clients need it (and block everybody else).

As I say, nothing earth-shattering but a solid base on which to build a recommendations system.

I am become death.


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