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Cluster analysis

Find out the basic requirements of clustering from this tip from authors Han and Kamber.

Cluster analysis
Jiawei Han and Micheline Kamber

With the huge amount of data available to most data warehouses, finding ways to organize that data is a top priority. According to Han and Kamber's book Data Mining: Concepts and Techniques (Morgan Kaufman), clustering is a viable option for organizing data that has not been classified yet.

The process of grouping a set of physical or abstract objects into classes of similar objects is called clustering. A cluster is a collection of data objects that are similar to one another with the same cluster and are dissimilar to the objects in other clusters. A cluster of data objects can be treated collectively as one group in many applications.

In data mining, efforts have focused on finding methods for efficient and effective cluster analysis in large databases. Active themes of research focus on the scalability of clustering methods, the effectiveness of methods for clustering complex shapes and types of data, high-dimensional clustering techniques, and methods for clustering mixed numerical and categorical data in large databases.

Clustering is a challenging field of research where its potential applications pose their own special requirements. The following are typical requirements of clustering in data mining:

  • Scalability: Many clustering algorithms work well on small data sets containing fewer than 200 data objects; however, a large database may contain millions of objects. Clustering on a sample of a given large data set may lead to biased results. Highly scalable clustering algorithms are needed.


  • Ability to deal with different types of attributes: Many algorithms are designed to cluster interval-based (numerical) data. However, applications may require clustering other types of data, such as binary, categorical (nominal), and ordinal data, or mixtures of these data types.


  • Discovery of clusters with arbitrary shape: Many clustering algorithms determine clusters based on Euclidean or Manhattan distance measures. Algorithms based on such distance measures tend to find spherical clusters with similar size and density. However, a cluster could be of any shape. It is important to develop algorithms that can detect clusters of arbitrary shape.


  • Minimal requirements for domain knowledge to determine input parameters: Many clustering algorithms require users to input certain parameters in cluster analysis (such as the number of desired clusters). The clustering results can be quite sensitive to input parameters. Parameters are often hard to determine, especially for data sets containing high-dimensional objects. This not only burdens users, but also makes the quality of clustering difficult to control.


  • Ability to deal with noisy data: Most real-world databases contain outliers or missing, unknown, or erroneous data. Some clustering algorithms are sensitive to such data and may lead to clusters of poor quality.


  • Insensitivity to the order of input records: Some clustering algorithms are sensitive to the order of input data; for example, the same set of data, when presented with different orderings to such an algorithm, may generate dramatically different clusters. It is important to develop algorithms that are insensitive to the order of input.


  • High dimensionality: A database or a data warehouse can contain several dimensions or attributes. Many clustering algorithms are good at handling low-dimensional data, involving only two to three dimensions. Human eyes are good at judging the quality of clustering for up to three dimensions. It is challenging to cluster data objects in high-dimensional space, especially considering that such data can be very sparse and highly skewed.


  • Constraint-based clustering: Real-world applications may need to perform clustering under various kinds of constraints. Suppose that your job is to choose the locations for a given number of new automatic cash-dispensing machines (i.e., ATMs) in a city. To decide upon this, you may cluster households while considering constraints such as the city's rivers and highway networks, and customer requirements per region. A challenging task is to find groups of data with good clustering behavior that satisfy specified constraints.


  • Interpretability and usability: Users expect clustering results to be interpretable, comprehensible, and usable. That is, clustering may need to be tied up with specific semantic interpretations and applications. It is important to study how an application goal may influence the selection of clustering methods.

Click on the book title to learn more about Data Data Mining: Concepts and Techniques.

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This was last published in July 2001

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