Predicting Customer Behavior with Amazon SageMaker Studio, Experiments, and Autopilot

Read Time: 15 minutes

Amazon SageMaker Studio is a web-based, fully integrated development environment (IDE) for machine learning on AWS. Announced at re:Invent in 2019, SageMaker Studio aims to roll up a number of core SageMaker features, under a convenient and intuitive single pane of glass. These features include:

  • SageMaker Studio Notebooks, with a substantially overhauled UI look and feel!
  • Amazon SageMaker Autopilot
  • Amazon SageMaker Experiments
  • Amazon SageMaker Debugger
  • Amazon SageMaker Model Monitor

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the first three features above, test drive them against some data, and get a sense for what SageMaker Studio might do to help solve a real business problem.

Enabling SageMaker Studio

In order to use SageMaker Studio, it first needs to be enabled in your AWS account. It is currently available in US East 2 (Ohio) AWS region, with additional regions coming soon. To start using SageMaker Studio:

  • Log in to the web console for your AWS account
  • Navigate to the Ohio (us-east-2) region
  • Navigate to the SageMaker dashboard, and click “SageMaker Studio” in the upper left
  • During the setup process, you will be prompted to create an IAM role. You can choose “create new”, accept the defaults, and click “Submit”

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  • After just a few moments, SM studio will be ready for use. Click “Open Studio” to begin.

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Automated Notebook instance provisioning

Notebooks is a feature of SageMaker that allows a user to provision Jupyter Notebook instances to use for data exploration and experimentation. If you’ve used SageMaker Notebooks previously, the first thing you will notice is SageMaker Studio eliminates the need to manually provision a Jupyter notebook instance. When a user clicks “Open Studio” from the console, SageMaker Studio takes care of provisioning a notebook instance behind the scenes, which is a very nice convenience feature.

Not your usual Jupyter UI!

Upon first use, Jupyter users will immediately notice the SageMaker Studio team has invested a great deal of effort into improving the standard Jupyter UI. The Studio UI sports a very nice default dark appearance, an integrated file browser, and top and side nav menus that make it look and feel like a real, first class IDE. Also, there is a Launcher tab for executing common tasks, like launching a new notebook or opening a terminal session. While Jupyter may still be buried under here somewhere, it’s definitely a significant upgrade over the default Jupyter experience.

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SageMaker Studio: Experiments and AutoPilot

Clicking around the Studio console, the first thing that caught my attention was “Experiments”. SageMaker Studio Experiments allow users to organize, track, compare, and evaluate machine learning experiments. As part of an iterative process, Amazon SageMaker Experiments automatically tracks the inputs, parameters, configurations, and results of your iterations as trials. You can assign, group, and organize these trials into experiments. Experiments are integrated with the IDE, providing a visual interface to browse your active and past experiments, compare trials on key performance metrics, and identify the best performing models.

Under the hood of SageMaker Studio Experiments is SageMaker AutoPilot, which is AWS’ implementation of AutoML. AutoPilot is intended to simplify the machine learning process by helping users explore data, try different algorithms, automatically trains and tunes models, and identifies the best algorithm. Autopilot uses automation to explore different combinations of data preprocessors, algorithms, and algorithm parameter settings to find an accurate model, similar to how a data scientist would.

A real world problem: Predicting customer behavior with SageMaker Studio

When kicking the tires on a new AWS tool like SageMaker Studio, the Getting Started documentation that AWS provides is a good place to begin, before moving on to something more complex. However, in this case, since we are discussing what is essentially an AutoML tool, I thought it might be more interesting and entertaining to put Studio through the tests on a real world data set that maybe doesn’t ‘play nicely’ out of the box like the Getting Started docs will. This should give us a better idea of how Studio Experiments might perform in the wild, when used on data that is closer to what a real customer problem would look like.

Hopping over to kaggle.com, I decided on the Santander Customer Transaction Prediction data set. Santander is a financial institution, who wanted to identify which banking customers will make a specific transaction in the future, irrespective of the amount of money transacted. The data provided in this data set has the same structure as the real data that the company has available to solve this problem.

The data

The data set consists of 200,000 training samples, with each sample containing about 200 anonymized numeric feature variables. Each sample is labelled with a binary target variable that indicates whether or not the customer made the specific interesting ‘future transaction’ that Santander would like to predict. A test set is also provided, also with 200,000 samples but without any labels. The task is to predict the value of the target column in the test set.

Without doing any EDA in a notebook, the first thing that jumps out is the count of positive data samples is only 20,098, so roughly ~10% of the training data. We’ll make a note of that, as that class imbalance may influence how we decide to use SageMaker Studio later on in our process.

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Obtaining the data and uploading to Amazon S3

First, we’ll need to get the Santander customer data into SageMaker Studio. We could download the data as a zipfile to our local workstation, and then re-upload it to our Studio instance. Or, we could use the Kaggle CLI to download the data directly into Studio. The Internet in my house is currently in high demand due to a house full of COVID-quarantined kids accessing school video classes, so I’m going to use the CLI. To follow along, you’ll need a Kaggle account, and a kaggle.json, which you can get by clicking “Create New API Token” on your account settings page. If you prefer to skip this step, you can simply download the data as a zipfile, and re-upload it to Studio, but be warned that it is 250MB, so the re-upload may take a while depending on your connection.

If you’d like to follow along in your own SageMaker Studio, all the code for this project is available as a GitHub repo here: https://github.com/ezeeetm/Sagemaker-Studio-Santander-Customer-Transaction.git, so let’s grab that now and put it on our SageMaker Studio instance.

In your SageMaker Studio IDE, choose Terminal from the Launcher tab, and clone the repository linked above. Then, in the file browser on the left hand side of the Studio IDE, browse into the root directory of the repo and upload your kaggle.json API key.

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Next, double click the sagemaker_studio.ipynb to open the notebook in the IDE. This should open a new Jupyter notebook tab, with all the code required for the rest of this walkthrough. Go ahead and use SHIFT+ENTER to execute the first two code cells in the notebook. These will install the Kaggle CLI, then download and unzip the Santander customer data on the SageMaker Studio instance.

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Then, execute the next code cell to take a quick look at the data in train.csv

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Notice that the ID_code value is neither a feature nor the target variable, so let’s drop the ID_code column, and overwrite train.csv with this new format. The original file is still in the .zip if we mess something up and need it later. It’s possible that the AutoML features of SageMaker AutoPilot would learn to ignore or otherwise handle this extra column appropriately. But, it seems like removing it is the most objective choice, since we know it’s not correlated with the target feature in any way, nor will those ID values be equivalent in the test data.

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Finally, let’s create a throwaway bucket and upload our train.csv file to S3, so that we can use it to create an Experiment in SageMaker Studio! Be sure to copy the bucket name generated, so we can use it later when setting up our Experiment.

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Create a new SageMaker Experiment

Now, we have everything we need to create an Experiment with our data set. Locate the Experiments beaker icon in the left navigation pane, and click “Create Experiment”. Then configure your Experiment with:

  • An Experiment Name
  • The S3 location of input data. This is the path to your /train.csv file in S3, using the bucket name copied in the previous step, example: s3://smstudio-santander-123456789/train.csv
  • The Target attribute name. These are the values in the target column in our dataset, so simply enter target here.
  • The S3 location for output data. This is where the Experiment will store trial results and models. Again, just append an /output path the throwaway bucket we created in the previous step, example: s3://smstudio-santander-123456789/output
  • Select the machine learning problem type. While we could probably leave this at Auto, we do know our problem is binary classification, so we’ll choose that.
  • Objective metric. When we choose binary classification as the problem type above, we are given two choices for objective metric. We’re going to choose Accuracy here, but will talk a little bit more about this choice in the next section.
  • Do you want to run a complete experiment? Choose Yes for this. Choosing No will cause the Experiments process to only run the Data Analysis portion of the Experiments pipeline. This will produce two representative Jupyter notebooks, and then stop without doing any feature engineering, model training, or hyperparameter tuning jobs. In our case, we want Experiments to run the whole pipeline, so we will choose Yes, and still be able to inspect the notebooks it produces.
  • Click “Create Experiment” located at the bottom right corner of the IDE.

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A quick note on the Objective Metric we chose above: Accuracy. SageMaker Studio gives us two choices for binary classification problems: Accuracy and F1. When to use each depends largely on the class balance in the training data set, and/or our expectation of false positives/negatives during training. Recall earlier that our classes are somewhat imbalanced: ~90% negative, ~10% positive. Accuracy is often a good choice in cases where there is a more balanced distribution of classes. F1, on the other hand may be a better choice when there is a substantial class imbalance. The F1 score can be interpreted as a weighted average of the precision and recall, where an F1 score reaches its best value at 1 and worst score at 0. The contribution of precision and recall to the F1 score are equal. The formula for the F1 score is:

F1 = 2 * (precision * recall) / (precision + recall)

Precision and Recall scores are effective in cases where class imbalance is so great that false positives and negatives become a problem for training. Consider an example of credit card fraud, where a hypothetical 99.5% of transactions are not fraudulent. A model could be trained that seems to do very well when Accuracy is used, and easily yield a 99.5% accurate result. However that same model can get the .5% fraudulent transactions wrong, 100% of the time (false negatives), and essentially be non-predictive in any way, while still scoring 99.5% accuracy. Imbalanced data sets like that are where Precision, Recall, and F1 can be an effective objective metric to train on false positives/false negatives instead of just raw accuracy.

So, why then are we choosing Accuracy here as our Objective Metric for imbalanced data set? A few reasons:

  • 90/10 may not be quite enough imbalance to make an Accuracy scored model appear to do well even when it’s not. That is, a 99% score on a 99/1 imbalance looks deceptively great, but a 90% score on a 90/10 imbalance does not.
  • Since there are only two choices for Objective metric here (Accuracy and F1), we can easily just run an Experiment with both, and just pick the one that performs the best against a test set that neither model has ever seen.
  • In this walkthrough, we are testing the AutoML features of SageMaker Studio, which really should work well independent of what settings the user chooses.

Also important to note here, is there are well-researched methods for dealing with class imbalance in training data. These methods include random oversampling of the minority class, random undersampling of the majority class, or ‘sample engineering’ using methods like Synthetic Minority Oversampling Technique(SMOTE), which uses a nearest neighbors algorithm to generate new synthetic data. However, again, we are testing AutoML features here, so any additional pre-processing we apply sort of dilutes the value we expect to see from the ‘automated’ part of AutoPilot’s AutoML capabilities. So, we’ll intentionally skip any preprocessing here, in favor of letting AutoPilot show us what it can do!

SageMaker Experiments Workflow

So, what exactly is SageMaker Studio doing under the hood when we run an Experiment? Well, there are four phases to the Experiment, let’s unpack in detail what each one is doing.

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Analyzing Data

First, SageMaker Studio will do some automated Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA), and produce two artifacts: a candidate generation notebook and a data exploration notebook. First, the data exploration notebook:

  • Does some high level analysis of things like missing values, such as: nan, white spaces, empty fields, etc.
  • Assesses number of unique values to determine whether to treat a feature as Categorical or Text and then processes the feature according to its type.
  • For Numerical features, applies numerical transformations such as normalization, log and quantile transforms, and binning to manage outlier values and difference in feature scales. For our Santander data set, this is the most relevant as SageMaker Studio finds 201 of the 202 columns contained at least one numerical value. All features are numerical, with the exception of the target feature, which is a category.
  • Takes all of that, captures it in a Jupyter notebook for future ‘explainability’ reference, and moves on to candidate generation.

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Next, based on what it learned during the Data Exploration phase, SageMaker Studio produces a Candidate Generation notebook. This notebook:

  • Helps you inspect and modify the data transformation approaches proposed by Amazon SageMaker Autopilot. You can interactively train the data transformation models and use them to transform the data. Finally, you can execute a multiple algorithm hyperparameter optimization (multi-algo HPO) job that helps you find the best model for your dataset by jointly optimizing the data transformations and machine learning algorithms. This is all done automatically when “run a complete experiment” was set to Yes when configuring the experiment.
  • Most importantly, lists all the models that AutoPilot intends to evaluate, which we will unpack in detail in the following section.

SageMaker AutoPilot models: a closer look

A SageMaker AutoPilot model candidate consists of two fundamental components: a preprocessor and an algorithm. The preprocessor defines a data transformation strategy, and the algorithm determines which specific ML approach will be used for that model candidate. Both the preprocessor and the algorithm have configurable hyperparameters that change the way the component works. These hyperparameters will be optimized later in the Experiment process as part of an automated hyperparameter tuning job.

In our example with the Santander customer transaction data, AutoPilot identified several model candidates for evaluation. Let’s take a detailed look at one of the candidates below. In this case, the data preprocessor (dpp) is dpp0, and the algorithm is xgboost. Together they make candidate definition ‘dpp0-xgboost

dpp0-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer (converts missing values to nan), ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

All told, AutoPilot suggested 10 different preprocessing candidates, paired with 3 linear algorithms and 7 xgboost algorithms. (Any bets on which one is going to win?). I’ve included the remaining 9 model candidates as an appendix(1) at the end of this blog, for those who may be interested, so you can get a general idea of how they might differ from one candidate to the next. Here’s what an individual model definition looks like in the candidate selection notebook:

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Feature Engineering and Model Tuning

Next, SageMaker Experiments essentially does an automated run of what is described on the “Candidate Selection” notebook. That is, it:

  • Executes the Candidate Pipelines
  • Run Data Transformation Steps, and any feature engineering included in the preprocessor (see examples above and appendix(1) for more). These are built on SciKit Learn, and maintained here: https://github.com/aws/sagemaker-scikit-learn-extension
  • Conducts Multi Algorithm Hyperparameter Tuning, across 250 different combinations of hyperparameters. The default value of 250 is configurable.
  • Identifies the best model candidate

Training results: 91.4% accuracy!

The entire Experiments/AutoPilot process completed in a little under 3 hours. During that time, however, the actual training duration was a little under 16 hours due to parallelization of the HPO job in what appeared to be about 10 jobs wide. 16 hours worth of training in under 3 hours is not bad at all!

As for our accuracy objective metric, the best candidate achieved a score of 91.4% accuracy. This is a very promising first result, considering all we really did was remove an ID column from our data, upload it to S3, provide some very basic configuration values for the Experiment, then grab a cup of coffee and come back 3 hours later.

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So, what made this particular candidate so special compared to the other 249 candidates that were evaluated? Well, the model used the dpp1 preprocessor which is a stack of RobustImputer and RobustMissingIndicator followed by LogExtremeValuesTransformer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. You can learn more about those processors here: https://github.com/aws/sagemaker-scikit-learn-extension. It then trains a linear learner algorithm, with the specific hyperparameters shown below:

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What’s next?

91% training accuracy is a great starting point considering it only took a few minutes of manual effort to get to that point. There are a few things we can do next to start improving on that baseline accuracy score:

  • Most importantly, we need to evaluate our best candidate against a previously unseen test set of unlabeled data, to ensure our model didn’t overfit to our training data. SageMaker does automatically break the data up into a train/validate split during training, but it’s still possible for a model to overfit to a validation set during training. For this, we can use the unlabeled test.csv data that accompanied our training data, and deploy our model using SageMaker Batch Transform. Batch Transform can do batch inference of data in S3. This approach avoids having to deploy a SageMaker endpoint and call it 200,000 times, line by line, to evaluate the test data.
  • Once we have inferred labels on the test.csv data, we can submit it to the Kaggle leaderboard, to see how our model fares against 8,802 teams of humans, the best of which scored 92.5% against the data in test.csv.
  • We can also do some basic data resampling/oversampling/synthesizing to reduce the imbalance in our training data.
  • Finally, we could run a second Experiment using F1 score instead of Accuracy, and see how the best candidate from that Experiment fares against the unlabeled test.csv data.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this walkthrough of training an ML model using SageMaker Studio Experiments and AutoPilot. I was personally surprised by a few things in writing this:

First, how easy it was to set up and use SageMaker Experiments. It really was a breeze to go from 0 to trained model, and didn’t run into any snags or hand waving that isn’t covered in this article.

Second, the training accuracy of the best candidate, which I fully expected to be very bad for AutoML used against an imbalanced classification problem with no preprocessing to address the imbalance.

Third, that the ‘winning’ model had a “text features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer” element to it. This is essentially useless in this use case as there are no text features, but it does speak to the effectiveness of the other elements of the preprocessing stack, and the best hyperparameters of the candidate model. I’d like to look at an intermediate dataset to see how (if at all) the MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer transforms the training data, since there is no text data to calculate Term Frequency or Document Frequency. It’s interesting that this preprocessing element was even in a candidate, let alone that it did so well.

Finally, I was most surprised that the linear model was able to outperform XGBoost in training. I fully expected one of the XGBoost models to come out on top, and do so by a large margin. Perhaps with more preprocessing and more experimentation, it would!

Are you exploring Machine Learning to extract intelligence from your data and empower business decision-making? Get in touch with our AI/ML experts today and discover how Onica can help you develop an AWS powered solution.

(1) Appendix: AutoPilot Model Definitions Chosen for Santander dataset

dpp1-linear-learner: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using combined RobustImputer and RobustMissingIndicator followed by LogExtremeValuesTransformer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a linear-learner model.

dpp2-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

dpp3-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer (converts missing values to nan), ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

dpp4-linear-learner: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using combined RobustImputer and RobustMissingIndicator followed by QuantileExtremeValuesTransformer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a linear-learner model.

dpp5-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer (converts missing values to nan), ‘categorical’ features using ThresholdOneHotEncoder, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

dpp6-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

dpp7-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using RobustImputer (converts missing values to nan), ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model

dpp8-linear-learner: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using combined RobustImputer and RobustMissingIndicator followed by QuantileExtremeValuesTransformer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a linear-learner model.

dpp9-xgboost: This data transformation strategy first transforms ‘numeric’ features using combined RobustImputer and RobustMissingIndicator followed by QuantileExtremeValuesTransformer, ‘text’ features using MultiColumnTfidfVectorizer. It merges all the generated features and applies RobustPCA followed by RobustStandardScaler. The transformed data will be used to tune a xgboost model.

Hidden layer

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