Productionising a model using Pandas Categorical variables.

November 23, 2015

One of the major limitations of Scikit Learn is its lack of native support of categorical variables for tree models. One way around this is to use pd.get_dummies to perform a one-hot-encoding on categorical variables, however this doesn’t work well when the column has a lot of levels. Instead it can actually be more effective to convert the column to a numeric id and treat it as a continuous variable – as long as your trees have enough depth, they will naturally re-segment the variable into its natural categories. (I have routinely achieved up to 5% improvement on AUROC using this techique compared to a model of the same size/complexity using dummy variables.) The introduction of the categorical data type in Pandas since version 0.15 makes this a breeze – the column is stored as a vector of Numpy int64, together with a list of levels which is used as a codebook.

I’ve been trying to work out the a natural way to save these encodings for productionising a model. I’ve settled on pickling an empty dataframe with the categorical predictor columns. Then when I append the data that is to be scored against the model, the categorical encoding is automatically applied. As a bonus, if a new value is encountered which is not present in the original dataframe, it will simply be set as NaN, which is exactly what I would hope for (this is a bit trickier to deal with when using dummy variables).

Here is a toy example to show what I mean

import pandas as pd
import pickle

df = pd.DataFrame({'happy':[1,1,0],
       .apply(lambda x: x.astype('category'))

model = {(0,0): 1, (1,0): 0, (0,0): 1, (0,1):0}

#create template as a slice consisting of no rows, and columns 1 and 2
input_template = df.iloc[[], [1,2]]

model_and_input_template = {'model': model, 'input_template': input_template}
with open('model.pkl', 'wb') as f:

def score_data(input_data, model, input_template):
    with open('model.pkl', 'rb') as f:
        model_and_input_template = pickle.loads(
    model = model_and_input_template['model']
    input_template = model_and_input_template['input_template']    
    categorical_data = input_template.append(input_data, ignore_index=True)
    encoded_data = categorical_data.apply(lambda x : if x.dtype == 'category' else x)
    return model[tuple(encoded_data.ix[0].values)]

input_data = {'weather':'cloudy','snack':'cake'}
print (score_data(input_data, model, input_template))
#it's cloudy outside but the birthday cake must have cheered me up!