A Bayesian approach to Observing Dark Worlds

This note also appeared on Kaggle’s blog.

Iain Murray, Version 1.02, 2012-12-19.

In December 2012 I entered the Kaggle/Winton Observing Dark Worlds competition. See the competition page first, for a great pictorial introduction. My predictions placed 2nd out of 357 teams. This short note describes my approach.

Modeling the data, and making predictions

I took the “obvious” Bayesian approach to this challenge, although didn’t implement it quite as carefully as possible. This style of solution involves three steps: 1) Build a probabilistic model of the data; 2) Infer underlying explanations of the test data; 3) Fit the ‘best’ estimates that minimize the expected error (measured by the metric used on the leaderboard).

1) The model: The observed data were positions of galaxies and their measured ellipticities. The ellipticities were clearly Gaussian-distributed. The dark matter halos exert a “force” on the galaxies, locally shifting the mean of the distribution over ellipticities. The example maximum likelihood code, provided by the organizers, gave me the equations to describe how the ellipticities are shifted by a force. That only left me to model the force as a function of displacement from a halo center.

Based on a quick visualization, I picked a force term of m/max(r,r0), where m is proportional to the halo mass, r is the radial distance from the halo center, and r0 is a core radius inside which the force doesn’t increase. I doubted that this model was quite right, so I also increased the variance of the ellipticities inside the halo core, hoping to increase the robustness of the model.

(I was a little negligent: I should have considered more flexible models of the forces, with more free parameters, and learned whether and how to use them from the data. I didn’t make time to do that, or even test properly whether increasing the within-core variance was a good idea. I’d be more careful in a real collaboration.)

2) Inference: Given the model, I applied a standard method to simulate plausible explanations of the test skies. I used Slice Sampling, an easy-to-use Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) method, and didn’t have to tune any tweak parameters. My results on the training skies seemed to be similar if I initialized the dark matter halos at their true locations, or randomly, so I assumed that the sampler was working well enough for the competition. The inference stage was by far the easiest: very little coding or computer time, and no tweaking required.

If you would like to try out slice sampling, you could play with my Octave/Matlab-based MCMC tutorial exercise. The original paper (Neal, 2003) is excellent, or for a shorter introduction, see Chapter 29 of David MacKay's book.

Sampling gives me a bag of samples: a set of plausible dark matter halo positions and masses. If I showed you a movie, stepping through the different plausible halo locations, you would probably understand roughly what we can and can’t know. You might say something like “I can see that there’s definitely a halo in the top right, but the other one could be nearly anywhere”. Unfortunately I’m not able to cram a bag of samples, or your verbal explanation, into the .csv submission format defined by the competition rules. There are a plethora of possible ways to make a single guess, including: picking a random sample, using the most probable sample, or using the mean of the samples. But these methods shouldn’t be used without justification.

3) Making a leaderboard submission: A sensible way to make a guess, when forced to, is to minimize the expected size of your mistakes. In this competition, the size of a mistake was measured in a complicated way: the “Dark Worlds Metric”. I’d like to say that I minimized the expected value of this metric, but it was hard to deal with. The best prediction for a sky depends on the mistakes made in other skies, and I didn’t know which skies would be in the final test set. Rather than considering possible test set splits (and possibly inferring the split!), I used a pragmatic hack. I optimized the prediction for each sky using the Dark Worlds Metric applied to a fictitious test set containing multiple copies of the same sky with different halo locations given by the MCMC samples. I hoped that this procedure was close enough to the ideal procedure that I would do well.


Given the setup of this competition, I doubt that it is possible to do much better than the style of approach described here. Tim Salimans, who won, followed a very similar approach. He might have solved the optimization problem better (I should have used gradient-based optimization, but didn’t). Tim fixed his r0 parameters, based on the training data, whereas I left them uncertain. I didn’t work hard enough to notice that these parameters were always close to one of two fixed values (an artifact of the competition if true). Hierarchical learning of the distribution of such tweak parameters is important in real problems, and would be the way to go in future.

If the organizers ran MCMC on the model that they actually used to generate the data, that would find the best reasonable performance: what could be achieved without getting lucky, or fitting to the test data with multiple submissions. I have described in a separate Forum post how it would also be possible for the organizers to tell whether entrants to the competition were just lucky, by testing their expected performance over all reasonable explanations of the test set, rather than just one.

I know from the Forum that some of the competitors near the top of the leaderboard didn't use Bayesian approaches: there are other ways to get good predictions, and my approaches to machine learning are not always Bayesian either. However, in this problem, the Bayesian approach was natural and straightforward. Unlike some methods discussed on the Forum, no careful tuning, special consideration of edge effects, or choosing of grids was required. The result of inference (given enough samples) is a complete description of what is known about the sky. The resulting samples aren’t tied to one evaluation metric, but can be used to find an estimate that will work well under any.

Thanks very much to the organizers: Tom Kitching, David Harvey, Kaggle, and Winton for a fun competition. Congratulations to Tim Salimans for coming first!

My code is available.