A Gentle Introduction to Recommender Systems with Implicit Feedback
Recommender systems have become a very important part of the retail, social networking, and entertainment industries. From providing advice on songs for you to try, suggesting books for you to read, or finding clothes to buy, recommender systems have greatly improved the ability of customers to make choices more easily.
Why is it so important for customers to have support in decision making? A wellcited study (over 2000 citations so far!) by Iyengar and Lepper ran an experiment where they had two stands of jam on two different days. One stand had 24 varieties of jam while the second had only six. The stand with 24 varieties of jam only converted 3% of the customers to a sale, while the stand with only six varieties converted 30% of the customers. This was an increase in sales of nearly tenfold!
Given the number of possible choices available, especially for online shopping, having some extra guidance on these choices can really make a difference. Xavier Amatriain, now at Quora and previously at Netflix, gave an absolutely outstanding talk on recommender systems at Carnegie Mellon in 2014. I have included the talk below if you would like to see it.
Some of the key statistics about recommender systems he notes are the following:
 At Netflix, 2/3 of the movies watched are recommended
 At Google, news recommendations improved clickthrough rate (CTR) by 38%
 For Amazon, 35% of sales come from recommendations
In addition, at Hulu, incorporating a recommender system improved their CTR by three times over just recommending the most popular shows back in 2011. When well implemented, recommender systems can give your company a great edge.
That doesn’t mean your company should necessarily build one, however. Valerie Coffman posted this article back in 2013, explaining that you need a fairly large amount of data on your customers and product purchases in order to have enough information for an effective recommender system. It’s not for everyone, but if you have enough data, it’s a good idea to consider it.
So, let’s assume you do have enough data on your customers and items to go about building one. How would you do it? Well, that depends a lot on several factors, such as:
 The kind of data you have about your users/items
 Ability to scale
 Recommendation transparency
I will cover a few of the options available and reveal the basic methodology behind each one.
Content Based (Pandora)
In the case of Pandora, the online streaming music company, they decided to engineer features from all of the songs in their catalog as part of the Music Genome Project. Most songs are based on a feature vector of approximately 450 features, which were derived in a very long and arduous process. Once you have this feature set, one technique that works well enough is to treat the recommendation problem as a binary classification problem. This allows one to use more traditional machine learning techniques that output a probability for a certain user to like a specific song based on a training set of their song listening history. Then, simply recommend the songs with the greatest probability of being liked.
Most of the time, however, you aren’t going to have features already encoded for all of your products. This would be very difficult, and it took Pandora several years to finish so it probably won’t be a great option.
Demographic Based (Facebook)
If you have a lot of demographic information about your users like Facebook or LinkedIn does, you may be able to recommend based on similar users and their past behavior. Similar to the content based method, you could derive a feature vector for each of your users and generate models that predict probabilities of liking certain items.
Again, this requires a lot of information about your users that you probably don’t have in most cases.
So if you need a method that doesn’t care about detailed information regarding your items or your users, collaborative filtering is a very powerful method that works with surprising efficacy.
Collaborative Filtering
This is based on the relationship between users and items, with no information about the users or the items required! All you need is a rating of some kind for each user/item interaction that occurred where available. There are two kinds of data available for this type of interaction: explicit and implicit.
 Explicit: A score, such as a rating or a like
 Implicit: Not as obvious in terms of preference, such as a click, view, or purchase
The most common example discussed is movie ratings, which are given on a numeric scale. We can easily see whether a user enjoyed a movie based on the rating provided. The problem, however, is that most of the time, people don’t provide ratings at all (I am totally guilty of this on Netflix!), so the amount of data available is quite scarce. Netflix at least knows whether I watched something, which requires no further input on my part. It may be the case that I watched something but didn’t like it afterwards. So, it can be more difficult to infer whether this type of movie should be considered a positive recommendation or not.
Regardless of this disadvantage, implicit feedback is usually the way to go. Hulu, in a blog post about their recommendation system states:
As the quantity of implicit data at Hulu far outweighs the amount of explicit feedback, our system should be designed primarily to work with implicit feedback data.
Since more data usually means a better model, implicit feedback is where our efforts should be focused. While there are a variety of ways to tackle collaborative filtering with implicit feedback, I will focus on the method included in Spark’s library used for collaborative filtering, alternating least squares (ALS).
Alternating Least Squares
Before we start building our own recommender system on an example problem, I want to explain some of the intuition behind how this method works and why it likely is the only chosen method in Spark’s library. We discussed before how collaborative filtering doesn’t require any information about the users or items. Well, is there another way we can figure out how the users and the items are related to each other?
It turns out we can if we apply matrix factorization. Often, matrix factorization is applied in the realm of dimensionality reduction, where we are trying to reduce the number of features while still keeping the relevant information. This is the case with principal component analysis (PCA) and the very similar singular value decomposition (SVD).
Essentially, can we take a large matrix of user/item interactions and figure out the latent (or hidden) features that relate them to each other in a much smaller matrix of user features and item features? That’s exactly what ALS is trying to do through matrix factorization.
As the image below demonstrates, let’s assume we have an original ratings matrix $R$ of size $MxN$, where $M$ is the number of users and $N$ is the number of items. This matrix is quite sparse, since most users only interact with a few items each. We can factorize this matrix into two separate smaller matrices: one with dimensions $MxK$ which will be our latent user feature vectors for each user $(U)$ and a second with dimensions $KxN$, which will have our latent item feature vectors for each item $(V)$. Multiplying these two feature matrices together approximates the original matrix, but now we have two matrices that are dense including a number of latent features $K$ for each of our items and users.
In order to solve for $U$ and $V$, we could either utilize SVD (which would require inverting a potentially very large matrix and be computationally expensive) to solve the factorization more precisely or apply ALS to approximate it. In the case of ALS, we only need to solve one feature vector at a time, which means it can be run in parallel! (This large advantage is probably why it is the method of choice for Spark). To do this, we can randomly initialize $U$ and solve for $V$. Then we can go back and solve for $U$ using our solution for $V$. Keep iterating back and forth like this until we get a convergence that approximates $R$ as best as we can.
After this has been finished, we can simply take the dot product of $U$ and $V$ to see what the predicted rating would be for a specific user/item interaction, even if there was no prior interaction. This basic methodology was adopted for implicit feedback problems in the paper Collaborative Filtering for Implicit Feedback Datasets by Hu, Koren, and Volinsky. We will use this paper’s method on a real dataset and build our own recommender system.
Processing the Data
The data we are using for this example comes from the infamous UCI Machine Learning repository. The dataset is called “Online Retail” and is found here. As you can see in the description, this dataset contains all purchases made for an online retail company based in the UK during an eight month period.
We need to take all of the transactions for each customer and put these into a format ALS can use. This means we need each unique customer ID in the rows of the matrix, and each unique item ID in the columns of the matrix. The values of the matrix should be the total number of purchases for each item by each customer.
First, let’s load some libraries that will help us out with the preprocessing step. Pandas is always helpful!
import pandas as pd
import scipy.sparse as sparse
import numpy as np
from scipy.sparse.linalg import spsolve
The first step is to load the data in. Since the data is saved in an Excel file, we can use Pandas to load it.
website_url = 'http://archive.ics.uci.edu/ml/machinelearningdatabases/00352/Online%20Retail.xlsx'
retail_data = pd.read_excel(website_url) # This may take a couple minutes
Now that the data has been loaded, we can see what is in it.
retail_data.head()
InvoiceNo  StockCode  Description  Quantity  InvoiceDate  UnitPrice  CustomerID  Country  

0  536365  85123A  WHITE HANGING HEART TLIGHT HOLDER  6  20101201 08:26:00  2.55  17850.0  United Kingdom 
1  536365  71053  WHITE METAL LANTERN  6  20101201 08:26:00  3.39  17850.0  United Kingdom 
2  536365  84406B  CREAM CUPID HEARTS COAT HANGER  8  20101201 08:26:00  2.75  17850.0  United Kingdom 
3  536365  84029G  KNITTED UNION FLAG HOT WATER BOTTLE  6  20101201 08:26:00  3.39  17850.0  United Kingdom 
4  536365  84029E  RED WOOLLY HOTTIE WHITE HEART.  6  20101201 08:26:00  3.39  17850.0  United Kingdom 
The dataset includes the invoice number for different purchases, along with the StockCode (or item ID), an item description, the number purchased, the date of purchase, the price of the items, a customer ID, and the country of origin for the customer.
Let’s check to see if there are any missing values in the data.
retail_data.info()
<class 'pandas.core.frame.DataFrame'>
RangeIndex: 541909 entries, 0 to 541908
Data columns (total 8 columns):
InvoiceNo 541909 nonnull object
StockCode 541909 nonnull object
Description 540455 nonnull object
Quantity 541909 nonnull int64
InvoiceDate 541909 nonnull datetime64[ns]
UnitPrice 541909 nonnull float64
CustomerID 406829 nonnull float64
Country 541909 nonnull object
dtypes: datetime64[ns](1), float64(2), int64(1), object(4)
memory usage: 33.1+ MB
Most columns have no missing values, but Customer ID is missing in several rows. If the customer ID is missing, we don’t know who bought the item. We should drop these rows from our data first. We can use the pd.isnull to test for rows with missing data and only keep the rows that have a customer ID.
cleaned_retail = retail_data.loc[pd.isnull(retail_data.CustomerID) == False]
cleaned_retail.info()
<class 'pandas.core.frame.DataFrame'>
Int64Index: 406829 entries, 0 to 541908
Data columns (total 8 columns):
InvoiceNo 406829 nonnull object
StockCode 406829 nonnull object
Description 406829 nonnull object
Quantity 406829 nonnull int64
InvoiceDate 406829 nonnull datetime64[ns]
UnitPrice 406829 nonnull float64
CustomerID 406829 nonnull float64
Country 406829 nonnull object
dtypes: datetime64[ns](1), float64(2), int64(1), object(4)
memory usage: 27.9+ MB
Much better. Now we have no missing values and all of the purchases can be matched to a specific customer.
Before we make any sort of ratings matrix, it would be nice to have a lookup table that keeps track of each item ID along with a description of that item. Let’s make that now.
item_lookup = cleaned_retail[['StockCode', 'Description']].drop_duplicates() # Only get unique item/description pairs
item_lookup['StockCode'] = item_lookup.StockCode.astype(str) # Encode as strings for future lookup ease
item_lookup.head()
StockCode  Description  

0  85123A  WHITE HANGING HEART TLIGHT HOLDER 
1  71053  WHITE METAL LANTERN 
2  84406B  CREAM CUPID HEARTS COAT HANGER 
3  84029G  KNITTED UNION FLAG HOT WATER BOTTLE 
4  84029E  RED WOOLLY HOTTIE WHITE HEART. 
This can tell us what each item is, such as that StockCode 71053 is a white metal lantern. Now that this has been created, we need to:
 Group purchase quantities together by stock code and item ID
 Change any sums that equal zero to one (this can happen if items were returned, but we want to indicate that the user actually purchased the item instead of assuming no interaction between the user and the item ever took place)
 Only include customers with a positive purchase total to eliminate possible errors
 Set up our sparse ratings matrix
This last step is especially important if you don’t want to have unnecessary memory issues! If you think about it, our matrix is going to contain thousands of items and thousands of users with a user/item value required for every possible combination. That is a LARGE matrix, so we can save a lot of memory by keeping the matrix sparse and only saving the locations and values of items that are not zero.
The code below will finish the preprocessing steps necessary for our final ratings sparse matrix:
cleaned_retail['CustomerID'] = cleaned_retail.CustomerID.astype(int) # Convert to int for customer ID
cleaned_retail = cleaned_retail[['StockCode', 'Quantity', 'CustomerID']] # Get rid of unnecessary info
grouped_cleaned = cleaned_retail.groupby(['CustomerID', 'StockCode']).sum().reset_index() # Group together
grouped_cleaned.Quantity.loc[grouped_cleaned.Quantity == 0] = 1 # Replace a sum of zero purchases with a one to
# indicate purchased
grouped_purchased = grouped_cleaned.query('Quantity > 0') # Only get customers where purchase totals were positive
If we look at our final resulting matrix of grouped purchases, we see the following:
grouped_purchased.head()
CustomerID  StockCode  Quantity  

0  12346  23166  1 
1  12347  16008  24 
2  12347  17021  36 
3  12347  20665  6 
4  12347  20719  40 
Instead of representing an explicit rating, the purchase quantity can represent a “confidence” in terms of how strong the interaction was. Items with a larger number of purchases by a customer can carry more weight in our ratings matrix of purchases.
Our last step is to create the sparse ratings matrix of users and items utilizing the code below:
customers = list(np.sort(grouped_purchased.CustomerID.unique())) # Get our unique customers
products = list(grouped_purchased.StockCode.unique()) # Get our unique products that were purchased
quantity = list(grouped_purchased.Quantity) # All of our purchases
rows = grouped_purchased.CustomerID.astype('category', categories = customers).cat.codes
# Get the associated row indices
cols = grouped_purchased.StockCode.astype('category', categories = products).cat.codes
# Get the associated column indices
purchases_sparse = sparse.csr_matrix((quantity, (rows, cols)), shape=(len(customers), len(products)))
Let’s check our final matrix object:
purchases_sparse
<4338x3664 sparse matrix of type '<class 'numpy.int64'>'
with 266723 stored elements in Compressed Sparse Row format>
We have 4338 customers with 3664 items. For these user/item interactions, 266723 of these items had a purchase. In terms of sparsity of the matrix, that makes:
matrix_size = purchases_sparse.shape[0]*purchases_sparse.shape[1] # Number of possible interactions in the matrix
num_purchases = len(purchases_sparse.nonzero()[0]) # Number of items interacted with
sparsity = 100*(1  (num_purchases/matrix_size))
sparsity
98.32190920694744
98.3% of the interaction matrix is sparse. For collaborative filtering to work, the maximum sparsity you could get away with would probably be about 99.5% or so. We are well below this, so we should be able to get decent results.
Creating a Training and Validation Set
Typically in Machine Learning applications, we need to test whether the model we just trained is any good on new data it hasn’t yet seen before from the training phase. We do this by creating a test set completely separate from the training set. Usually this is fairly simple: just take a random sample of the training example rows in our feature matrix and separate it away from the training set. That normally looks like this:
With collaborative filtering, that’s not going to work because you need all of the user/item interactions to find the proper matrix factorization. A better method is to hide a certain percentage of the user/item interactions from the model during the training phase chosen at random. Then, check during the test phase how many of the items that were recommended the user actually ended up purchasing in the end. Ideally, you would ultimately test your recommendations with some kind of A/B test or utilizing data from a time series where all data prior to a certain point in time is used for training while data after a certain period of time is used for testing.
For this example, because the time period is only 8 months and because of the purchasing type (products), it is most likely products won’t be purchased again in a short time period anyway. This will be a better test. You can see an example here:
Our test set is an exact copy of our original data. The training set, however, will mask a random percentage of user/item interactions and act as if the user never purchased the item (making it a sparse entry with a zero). We then check in the test set which items were recommended to the user that they ended up actually purchasing. If the users frequently ended up purchasing the items most recommended to them by the system, we can conclude the system seems to be working.
As an additional check, we can compare our system to simply recommending the most popular items to every user (beating popularity is a bit difficult). This will be our baseline.
This method of testing isn’t necessarily the “correct” answer, because it depends on how you want to use the recommender system. However, it is a practical way of testing performance I will use for this example.
Now that we have a plan on how to separate our training and testing sets, let’s create a function that can do this for us. We will also import the random library and set a seed so that you will see the same results as I did.
import random
def make_train(ratings, pct_test = 0.2):
'''
This function will take in the original useritem matrix and "mask" a percentage of the original ratings where a
useritem interaction has taken place for use as a test set. The test set will contain all of the original ratings,
while the training set replaces the specified percentage of them with a zero in the original ratings matrix.
parameters:
ratings  the original ratings matrix from which you want to generate a train/test set. Test is just a complete
copy of the original set. This is in the form of a sparse csr_matrix.
pct_test  The percentage of useritem interactions where an interaction took place that you want to mask in the
training set for later comparison to the test set, which contains all of the original ratings.
returns:
training_set  The altered version of the original data with a certain percentage of the useritem pairs
that originally had interaction set back to zero.
test_set  A copy of the original ratings matrix, unaltered, so it can be used to see how the rank order
compares with the actual interactions.
user_inds  From the randomly selected useritem indices, which user rows were altered in the training data.
This will be necessary later when evaluating the performance via AUC.
'''
test_set = ratings.copy() # Make a copy of the original set to be the test set.
test_set[test_set != 0] = 1 # Store the test set as a binary preference matrix
training_set = ratings.copy() # Make a copy of the original data we can alter as our training set.
nonzero_inds = training_set.nonzero() # Find the indices in the ratings data where an interaction exists
nonzero_pairs = list(zip(nonzero_inds[0], nonzero_inds[1])) # Zip these pairs together of user,item index into list
random.seed(0) # Set the random seed to zero for reproducibility
num_samples = int(np.ceil(pct_test*len(nonzero_pairs))) # Round the number of samples needed to the nearest integer
samples = random.sample(nonzero_pairs, num_samples) # Sample a random number of useritem pairs without replacement
user_inds = [index[0] for index in samples] # Get the user row indices
item_inds = [index[1] for index in samples] # Get the item column indices
training_set[user_inds, item_inds] = 0 # Assign all of the randomly chosen useritem pairs to zero
training_set.eliminate_zeros() # Get rid of zeros in sparse array storage after update to save space
return training_set, test_set, list(set(user_inds)) # Output the unique list of user rows that were altered
This will return our training set, a test set that has been binarized to 0/1 for purchased/not purchased, and a list of which users had at least one item masked. We will test the performance of the recommender system on these users only. I am masking 20% of the user/item interactions for this example.
product_train, product_test, product_users_altered = make_train(purchases_sparse, pct_test = 0.2)
Now that we have our train/test split, it is time to implement the alternating least squares algorithm from the Hu, Koren, and Volinsky paper.
Implementing ALS for Implicit Feedback
Now that we have our training and test sets finished, we can move on to implementing the algorithm. If you look at the paper previously linked above
you can see the key equations will we need to implement into the algorithm. First, we have our ratings matrix which is sparse (represented by the product_train sparse matrix object). We need to turn this into a confidence matrix (from page 4):
\begin{equation} C_{ui} = 1 + \alpha r_{ui} \end{equation}
Where $C_{ui}$ is the confidence matrix for our users $u$ and our items $i$. The $\alpha$ term represents a linear scaling of the rating preferences (in our case number of purchases) and the $r_{ui}$ term is our original matrix of purchases. The paper suggests 40 as a good starting point.
After taking the derivative of equation 3 in the paper, we can minimize the cost function for our users $U$:
\begin{equation} x_{u} = (Y^{T}C^{u}Y + \lambda I)^{1}Y^{T}C^{u}p(u) \end{equation}
The authors note you can speed up this computation through some linear algebra that changes this equation to:
\begin{equation} x_{u} = (Y^{T}Y + Y^{T}(C^{u}I)Y + \lambda I)^{1}Y^{T}C^{u}p(u) \end{equation}
Notice that we can now precompute the $Y^{T}Y$ portion without having to iterate through each user $u$. We can derive a similar equation for our items:
\begin{equation} y_{i} = (X^{T}X + X^{T}(C^{i}I)X + \lambda I)^{1}X^{T}C^{i}p(i) \end{equation}
These will be the two equations we will iterate back and forth between until they converge. We also have a regularization term $\lambda$ that can help prevent overfitting during the training stage as well, along with our binarized preference matrix $p$ which is just 1 where there was a purchase (or interaction) and zero where there was not.
Now that the math part is out of the way, we can turn this into code! Shoutout to Chris Johnson’s implicitmf code that was a helpful guide for this. I have altered his to make things easier to understand.
def implicit_weighted_ALS(training_set, lambda_val = 0.1, alpha = 40, iterations = 10, rank_size = 20, seed = 0):
'''
Implicit weighted ALS taken from Hu, Koren, and Volinsky 2008. Designed for alternating least squares and implicit
feedback based collaborative filtering.
parameters:
training_set  Our matrix of ratings with shape m x n, where m is the number of users and n is the number of items.
Should be a sparse csr matrix to save space.
lambda_val  Used for regularization during alternating least squares. Increasing this value may increase bias
but decrease variance. Default is 0.1.
alpha  The parameter associated with the confidence matrix discussed in the paper, where Cui = 1 + alpha*Rui.
The paper found a default of 40 most effective. Decreasing this will decrease the variability in confidence between
various ratings.
iterations  The number of times to alternate between both user feature vector and item feature vector in
alternating least squares. More iterations will allow better convergence at the cost of increased computation.
The authors found 10 iterations was sufficient, but more may be required to converge.
rank_size  The number of latent features in the user/item feature vectors. The paper recommends varying this
between 20200. Increasing the number of features may overfit but could reduce bias.
seed  Set the seed for reproducible results
returns:
The feature vectors for users and items. The dot product of these feature vectors should give you the expected
"rating" at each point in your original matrix.
'''
# first set up our confidence matrix
conf = (alpha*training_set) # To allow the matrix to stay sparse, I will add one later when each row is taken
# and converted to dense.
num_user = conf.shape[0]
num_item = conf.shape[1] # Get the size of our original ratings matrix, m x n
# initialize our X/Y feature vectors randomly with a set seed
rstate = np.random.RandomState(seed)
X = sparse.csr_matrix(rstate.normal(size = (num_user, rank_size))) # Random numbers in a m x rank shape
Y = sparse.csr_matrix(rstate.normal(size = (num_item, rank_size))) # Normally this would be rank x n but we can
# transpose at the end. Makes calculation more simple.
X_eye = sparse.eye(num_user)
Y_eye = sparse.eye(num_item)
lambda_eye = lambda_val * sparse.eye(rank_size) # Our regularization term lambda*I.
# We can compute this before iteration starts.
# Begin iterations
for iter_step in range(iterations): # Iterate back and forth between solving X given fixed Y and vice versa
# Compute yTy and xTx at beginning of each iteration to save computing time
yTy = Y.T.dot(Y)
xTx = X.T.dot(X)
# Being iteration to solve for X based on fixed Y
for u in range(num_user):
conf_samp = conf[u,:].toarray() # Grab user row from confidence matrix and convert to dense
pref = conf_samp.copy()
pref[pref != 0] = 1 # Create binarized preference vector
CuI = sparse.diags(conf_samp, [0]) # Get Cu  I term, don't need to subtract 1 since we never added it
yTCuIY = Y.T.dot(CuI).dot(Y) # This is the yT(CuI)Y term
yTCupu = Y.T.dot(CuI + Y_eye).dot(pref.T) # This is the yTCuPu term, where we add the eye back in
# Cu  I + I = Cu
X[u] = spsolve(yTy + yTCuIY + lambda_eye, yTCupu)
# Solve for Xu = ((yTy + yT(CuI)Y + lambda*I)^1)yTCuPu, equation 4 from the paper
# Begin iteration to solve for Y based on fixed X
for i in range(num_item):
conf_samp = conf[:,i].T.toarray() # transpose to get it in row format and convert to dense
pref = conf_samp.copy()
pref[pref != 0] = 1 # Create binarized preference vector
CiI = sparse.diags(conf_samp, [0]) # Get Ci  I term, don't need to subtract 1 since we never added it
xTCiIX = X.T.dot(CiI).dot(X) # This is the xT(CuI)X term
xTCiPi = X.T.dot(CiI + X_eye).dot(pref.T) # This is the xTCiPi term
Y[i] = spsolve(xTx + xTCiIX + lambda_eye, xTCiPi)
# Solve for Yi = ((xTx + xT(CuI)X) + lambda*I)^1)xTCiPi, equation 5 from the paper
# End iterations
return X, Y.T # Transpose at the end to make up for not being transposed at the beginning.
# Y needs to be rank x n. Keep these as separate matrices for scale reasons.
Hopefully the comments are enough to see how the code was structured. You want to keep the matrices sparse where possible to avoid memory issues! Let’s try just a single iteration of the code to see how it works (it’s pretty slow right now!) I will choose 20 latent factors as my rank matrix size along with an alpha of 15 and regularization of 0.1 (which I found in testing does the best). This takes about 90 seconds to run on my MacBook Pro.
user_vecs, item_vecs = implicit_weighted_ALS(product_train, lambda_val = 0.1, alpha = 15, iterations = 1,
rank_size = 20)
We can investigate ratings for a particular user by taking the dot product between the user and item vectors ($U$ and $V$). Let’s look at our first user.
user_vecs[0,:].dot(item_vecs).toarray()[0,:5]
array([ 0.00644811, 0.0014369 , 0.00494281, 0.00027502, 0.01275582])
This is a sample of the first five items out of the 3664 in our stock. The first user in our matrix has the fifth item with the greatest recommendation out of the first five items. However, notice we only did one iteration because our algorithm was so slow! You should iterate at least ten times according to the authors so that $U$ and $V$ converge. We could wait 15 minutes to let this run, or . . . use someone else’s code that is much faster!
Speeding Up ALS
This code in its raw form is just too slow. We have to do a lot of looping, and we haven’t taken advantage of the fact that our algorithm is embarrasingly parallel, since we could do each iteration of the item and user vectors independently. Fortunately, as I was still finishing this up, Ben Frederickson at Flipboard had perfect timing and came out with a version of ALS for Python utilizing Cython and parallelizing the code among threads. You can read his blog post about using it for finding similar music artists using matrix factorization here and his implicit library here. He claims it is even faster than Quora’s C++ QMF, but I haven’t tried theirs. All I can tell you is that it is over 1000 times faster than this bare bones pure Python version when I tested it. Install this library before you continue and follow the instructions. If you have conda installed, just do pip install implicit and you should be good to go.
First, import his library so we can utilize it for our matrix factorization.
import implicit
His version of the code doesn’t have a parameter for the weighting $\alpha$ and assumes you are doing this to the ratings matrix before using it as an input. I did some testing and found the following settings to work the best. Also make sure that we set the type of our matrix to double for the ALS function to run properly.
alpha = 15
user_vecs, item_vecs = implicit.alternating_least_squares((product_train*alpha).astype('double'),
factors=20,
regularization = 0.1,
iterations = 50)
Much faster, right? We now have recommendations for all of our users and items. However, how do we know if these are any good?
Evaluating the Recommender System
Remember that our training set had 20% of the purchases masked? This will allow us to evaluate the performance of our recommender system. Essentially, we need to see if the order of recommendations given for each user matches the items they ended up purchasing. A commonly used metric for this kind of problem is the area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (or ROC) curve. A greater area under the curve means we are recommending items that end up being purchased near the top of the list of recommended items. Usually this metric is used in more typical binary classification problems to identify how well a model can predict a positive example vs. a negative one. It will also work well for our purposes of ranking recommendations.
In order to do that, we need to write a function that can calculate a mean area under the curve (AUC) for any user that had at least one masked item. As a benchmark, we will also calculate what the mean AUC would have been if we had simply recommended the most popular items. Popularity tends to be hard to beat in most recommender system problems, so it makes a good comparison.
First, let’s make a simple function that can calculate our AUC. Scikitlearn has one we can alter a bit.
from sklearn import metrics
def auc_score(predictions, test):
'''
This simple function will output the area under the curve using sklearn's metrics.
parameters:
 predictions: your prediction output
 test: the actual target result you are comparing to
returns:
 AUC (area under the Receiver Operating Characterisic curve)
'''
fpr, tpr, thresholds = metrics.roc_curve(test, predictions)
return metrics.auc(fpr, tpr)
Now, utilize this helper function inside of a second function that will calculate the AUC for each user in our training set that had at least one item masked. It should also calculate AUC for the most popular items for our users to compare.
def calc_mean_auc(training_set, altered_users, predictions, test_set):
'''
This function will calculate the mean AUC by user for any user that had their useritem matrix altered.
parameters:
training_set  The training set resulting from make_train, where a certain percentage of the original
user/item interactions are reset to zero to hide them from the model
predictions  The matrix of your predicted ratings for each user/item pair as output from the implicit MF.
These should be stored in a list, with user vectors as item zero and item vectors as item one.
altered_users  The indices of the users where at least one user/item pair was altered from make_train function
test_set  The test set constucted earlier from make_train function
returns:
The mean AUC (area under the Receiver Operator Characteristic curve) of the test set only on useritem interactions
there were originally zero to test ranking ability in addition to the most popular items as a benchmark.
'''
store_auc = [] # An empty list to store the AUC for each user that had an item removed from the training set
popularity_auc = [] # To store popular AUC scores
pop_items = np.array(test_set.sum(axis = 0)).reshape(1) # Get sum of item iteractions to find most popular
item_vecs = predictions[1]
for user in altered_users: # Iterate through each user that had an item altered
training_row = training_set[user,:].toarray().reshape(1) # Get the training set row
zero_inds = np.where(training_row == 0) # Find where the interaction had not yet occurred
# Get the predicted values based on our user/item vectors
user_vec = predictions[0][user,:]
pred = user_vec.dot(item_vecs).toarray()[0,zero_inds].reshape(1)
# Get only the items that were originally zero
# Select all ratings from the MF prediction for this user that originally had no iteraction
actual = test_set[user,:].toarray()[0,zero_inds].reshape(1)
# Select the binarized yes/no interaction pairs from the original full data
# that align with the same pairs in training
pop = pop_items[zero_inds] # Get the item popularity for our chosen items
store_auc.append(auc_score(pred, actual)) # Calculate AUC for the given user and store
popularity_auc.append(auc_score(pop, actual)) # Calculate AUC using most popular and score
# End users iteration
return float('%.3f'%np.mean(store_auc)), float('%.3f'%np.mean(popularity_auc))
# Return the mean AUC rounded to three decimal places for both test and popularity benchmark
We can now use this function to see how our recommender system is doing. To use this function, we will need to transform our output from the ALS function to csr_matrix format and transpose the item vectors. The original pure Python version output the user and item vectors into the correct format already.
calc_mean_auc(product_train, product_users_altered,
[sparse.csr_matrix(user_vecs), sparse.csr_matrix(item_vecs.T)], product_test)
# AUC for our recommender system
(0.87, 0.814)
We can see that our recommender system beat popularity. Our system had a mean AUC of 0.87, while the popular item benchmark had a lower AUC of 0.814. You can go back and tune the hyperparameters if you wish to see if you can get a higher AUC score. Ideally, you would have separate train, crossvalidation, and test sets so that you aren’t overfitting while tuning the hyperparameters, but this setup is adequate to demonstrate how to check that the system is working.
A Recommendation Example
We now have our recommender system trained and have proven it beats the benchmark of popularity. An AUC of 0.87 means the system is recommending items the user in fact had purchased in the test set far more frequently than items the user never ended up purchasing. To see an example of how it works, let’s examine the recommendations given to a particular user and decide subjectively if they make any sense.
First, however, we need to find a way of retrieving the items already purchased by a user in the training set. Initially, we will create an array of our customers and items we made earlier.
customers_arr = np.array(customers) # Array of customer IDs from the ratings matrix
products_arr = np.array(products) # Array of product IDs from the ratings matrix
Now, we can create a function that will return a list of the item descriptions from our earlier created item lookup table.
def get_items_purchased(customer_id, mf_train, customers_list, products_list, item_lookup):
'''
This just tells me which items have been already purchased by a specific user in the training set.
parameters:
customer_id  Input the customer's id number that you want to see prior purchases of at least once
mf_train  The initial ratings training set used (without weights applied)
customers_list  The array of customers used in the ratings matrix
products_list  The array of products used in the ratings matrix
item_lookup  A simple pandas dataframe of the unique product ID/product descriptions available
returns:
A list of item IDs and item descriptions for a particular customer that were already purchased in the training set
'''
cust_ind = np.where(customers_list == customer_id)[0][0] # Returns the index row of our customer id
purchased_ind = mf_train[cust_ind,:].nonzero()[1] # Get column indices of purchased items
prod_codes = products_list[purchased_ind] # Get the stock codes for our purchased items
return item_lookup.loc[item_lookup.StockCode.isin(prod_codes)]
We need to look these up by a customer’s ID. Looking at the list of customers:
customers_arr[:5]
array([12346, 12347, 12348, 12349, 12350])
we can see that the first customer listed has an ID of 12346. Let’s examine their purchases from the training set.
get_items_purchased(12346, product_train, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup)
StockCode  Description  

61619  23166  MEDIUM CERAMIC TOP STORAGE JAR 
We can see that the customer purchased a ceramic jar for storage, medium size. What items does the recommender system say this customer should purchase? We need to create another function that does this. Let’s also import the MinMaxScaler from scikitlearn to help with this.
from sklearn.preprocessing import MinMaxScaler
def rec_items(customer_id, mf_train, user_vecs, item_vecs, customer_list, item_list, item_lookup, num_items = 10):
'''
This function will return the top recommended items to our users
parameters:
customer_id  Input the customer's id number that you want to get recommendations for
mf_train  The training matrix you used for matrix factorization fitting
user_vecs  the user vectors from your fitted matrix factorization
item_vecs  the item vectors from your fitted matrix factorization
customer_list  an array of the customer's ID numbers that make up the rows of your ratings matrix
(in order of matrix)
item_list  an array of the products that make up the columns of your ratings matrix
(in order of matrix)
item_lookup  A simple pandas dataframe of the unique product ID/product descriptions available
num_items  The number of items you want to recommend in order of best recommendations. Default is 10.
returns:
 The top n recommendations chosen based on the user/item vectors for items never interacted with/purchased
'''
cust_ind = np.where(customer_list == customer_id)[0][0] # Returns the index row of our customer id
pref_vec = mf_train[cust_ind,:].toarray() # Get the ratings from the training set ratings matrix
pref_vec = pref_vec.reshape(1) + 1 # Add 1 to everything, so that items not purchased yet become equal to 1
pref_vec[pref_vec > 1] = 0 # Make everything already purchased zero
rec_vector = user_vecs[cust_ind,:].dot(item_vecs.T) # Get dot product of user vector and all item vectors
# Scale this recommendation vector between 0 and 1
min_max = MinMaxScaler()
rec_vector_scaled = min_max.fit_transform(rec_vector.reshape(1,1))[:,0]
recommend_vector = pref_vec*rec_vector_scaled
# Items already purchased have their recommendation multiplied by zero
product_idx = np.argsort(recommend_vector)[::1][:num_items] # Sort the indices of the items into order
# of best recommendations
rec_list = [] # start empty list to store items
for index in product_idx:
code = item_list[index]
rec_list.append([code, item_lookup.Description.loc[item_lookup.StockCode == code].iloc[0]])
# Append our descriptions to the list
codes = [item[0] for item in rec_list]
descriptions = [item[1] for item in rec_list]
final_frame = pd.DataFrame({'StockCode': codes, 'Description': descriptions}) # Create a dataframe
return final_frame[['StockCode', 'Description']] # Switch order of columns around
Essentially, this will retrieve the $N$ highest ranking dot products between our user and item vectors for a particular user. Items already purchased are not recommended to the user. For now, let’s use a default of 10 items and see what the recommender system decides to pick for our customer.
rec_items(12346, product_train, user_vecs, item_vecs, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup,
num_items = 10)
StockCode  Description  

0  23167  SMALL CERAMIC TOP STORAGE JAR 
1  23165  LARGE CERAMIC TOP STORAGE JAR 
2  22963  JAM JAR WITH GREEN LID 
3  23294  SET OF 6 SNACK LOAF BAKING CASES 
4  22980  PANTRY SCRUBBING BRUSH 
5  23296  SET OF 6 TEA TIME BAKING CASES 
6  23293  SET OF 12 FAIRY CAKE BAKING CASES 
7  22978  PANTRY ROLLING PIN 
8  23295  SET OF 12 MINI LOAF BAKING CASES 
9  22962  JAM JAR WITH PINK LID 
These recommendations seem quite good! Remember that the recommendation system has no real understanding of what a ceramic jar is. All it knows is the purchase history. It identified that people purchasing a medium sized jar may also want to purchase jars of a differing size. The recommender system also suggests jar magnets and a sugar dispenser, which is similar in use to a storage jar. I personally was blown away by how well the system seems to pick up on these sorts of shopping patterns. Let’s try another user that hasn’t made a large number of purchases.
get_items_purchased(12353, product_train, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup)
StockCode  Description  

2148  37446  MINI CAKE STAND WITH HANGING CAKES 
2149  37449  CERAMIC CAKE STAND + HANGING CAKES 
4859  37450  CERAMIC CAKE BOWL + HANGING CAKES 
5108  22890  NOVELTY BISCUITS CAKE STAND 3 TIER 
This person seems like they want to make cakes. What kind of items does the recommender system think they would be interested in?
rec_items(12353, product_train, user_vecs, item_vecs, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup,
num_items = 10)
StockCode  Description  

0  22645  CERAMIC HEART FAIRY CAKE MONEY BANK 
1  22055  MINI CAKE STAND HANGING STRAWBERY 
2  22644  CERAMIC CHERRY CAKE MONEY BANK 
3  37447  CERAMIC CAKE DESIGN SPOTTED PLATE 
4  37448  CERAMIC CAKE DESIGN SPOTTED MUG 
5  22059  CERAMIC STRAWBERRY DESIGN MUG 
6  22063  CERAMIC BOWL WITH STRAWBERRY DESIGN 
7  22649  STRAWBERRY FAIRY CAKE TEAPOT 
8  22057  CERAMIC PLATE STRAWBERRY DESIGN 
9  22646  CERAMIC STRAWBERRY CAKE MONEY BANK 
It certainly picked up on the cake theme along with ceramic items. Again, these recommendations seem very impressive given the system doesn’t understand the content behind the recommendations. Let’s try one more.
get_items_purchased(12361, product_train, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup)
StockCode  Description  

34  22326  ROUND SNACK BOXES SET OF4 WOODLAND 
35  22629  SPACEBOY LUNCH BOX 
37  22631  CIRCUS PARADE LUNCH BOX 
93  20725  LUNCH BAG RED RETROSPOT 
369  22382  LUNCH BAG SPACEBOY DESIGN 
547  22328  ROUND SNACK BOXES SET OF 4 FRUITS 
549  22630  DOLLY GIRL LUNCH BOX 
1241  22555  PLASTERS IN TIN STRONGMAN 
58132  20725  LUNCH BAG RED SPOTTY 
This customer seems like they are buying products suitable for lunch time. What other items does the recommender system think they might like?
rec_items(12361, product_train, user_vecs, item_vecs, customers_arr, products_arr, item_lookup,
num_items = 10)
StockCode  Description  

0  22662  LUNCH BAG DOLLY GIRL DESIGN 
1  20726  LUNCH BAG WOODLAND 
2  20719  WOODLAND CHARLOTTE BAG 
3  22383  LUNCH BAG SUKI DESIGN 
4  20728  LUNCH BAG CARS BLUE 
5  23209  LUNCH BAG DOILEY PATTERN 
6  22661  CHARLOTTE BAG DOLLY GIRL DESIGN 
7  20724  RED RETROSPOT CHARLOTTE BAG 
8  23206  LUNCH BAG APPLE DESIGN 
9  22384  LUNCH BAG PINK POLKADOT 
Once again, the recommender system comes through! Definitely a lot of bags and lunch related items in this recommendation list. Feel free to play around with the recommendations for other users and see what the system came up with!
Summary
In this post, we have learned about how to design a recommender system with implicit feedback and how to provide recommendations. We also covered how to test the recommender system.
In real life, if the size of your ratings matrix will not fit on a single machine very easily, utilizing the implementation in Spark is going to be more practical. If you are interested in taking recommender systems to the next level, a hybrid system would be best that incorporates information about your users/items along with the purchase history. A Python library called LightFM from Maciej Kula at Lyst looks very interesting for this sort of application. You can find it here.
Last, there are several other advanced methods you can incorporate in recommender systems to get a bump in performance. Part 2 of Xavier Amatriain’s lecture would be a great place to start.
If you are more interested in recommender systems with explicit feedback (such as with movie reviews) there are a couple of great posts that cover this in detail:

Alternating Least Squares Method for Collaborative Filtering by Bugra Akyildiz

Explicit Matrix Factorization: ALS, SGD, and All That Jazz by Ethan Rosenthal
If you are looking for great datasets to try a recommendation system out on for yourself, I found this gist helpful. Some of the links don’t work anymore but it’s a great place to start looking for data to try a system out on your own!
If you would like the Jupyter Notebook for this blog post, you can find it here.