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What is Cluster Analysis?


1 May 2015

What is Cluster Analysis?

Clustering is the process of grouping a set of data objects into multiple groups or clusters so that objects within a cluster have high similarity, but are very dissimilar to objects in other clusters. Dissimilarities and similarities are assessed based on the attribute values describing the objects and often involve distance measures. Clustering as a data mining tool has its roots in many application areas such as biology, security, business intelligence, and Web search.

Cluster analysis or simply clustering is the process of partitioning a set of data objects (or observations) into subsets. Each subset is a cluster, such that objects in a cluster are similar to one another, yet dissimilar to objects in other clusters. The set of clusters resulting from a cluster analysis can be referred to as a clustering. In this context, different clustering methods may generate different clusterings on the same data set. The partitioning is not performed by humans, but by the clustering algorithm. Hence, clustering is useful in that it can lead to the discovery of previously unknown groups within the data.

Cluster analysis has been widely used in many applications such as business intelligence, image pattern recognition, Web search, biology, and security. In business intelligence, clustering can be used to organize a large number of customers into groups, where customers within a group share strong similar characteristics. This facilitates the development of business strategies for enhanced customer relationship management. Moreover, consider a consultant company with a large number of projects. To improve project management, clustering can be applied to partition projects into categories based on similarity so that project auditing and diagnosis (to improve project delivery and outcomes) can be conducted effectively.

In image recognition, clustering can be used to discover clusters or “subclasses” in handwritten character recognition systems. Suppose we have a data set of handwritten digits, where each digit is labeled as either 1, 2, 3, and so on. Note that there can be a large variance in the way in which people write the same digit. Take the number 2, for example. Some people may write it with a small circle at the left bottom part, while some others may not. We can use clustering to determine subclasses for “2,” each of which represents a variation on the way in which 2 can be written. Using multiple models based on the subclasses can improve overall recognition accuracy.

Clustering has also found many applications in Web search. For example, a keyword search may often return a very large number of hits (i.e., pages relevant to the search) due to the extremely large number of web pages. Clustering can be used to organize the search results into groups and present the results in a concise and easily accessible way. Moreover, clustering techniques have been developed to cluster documents into topics, which are commonly used in information retrieval practice.

As a data mining function, cluster analysis can be used as a standalone tool to gain insight into the distribution of data, to observe the characteristics of each cluster, and to focus on a particular set of clusters for further analysis. Alternatively, it may serve as a preprocessing step for other algorithms, such as characterization, attribute subset selection, and classification, which would then operate on the detected clusters and the selected attributes or features.

Because a cluster is a collection of data objects that are similar to one another within the cluster and dissimilar to objects in other clusters, a cluster of data objects can be treated as an implicit class. In this sense, clustering is sometimes called automatic classification. Again, a critical difference here is that clustering can automatically find the groupings. This is a distinct advantage of cluster analysis.

Clustering is also called data segmentation in some applications because clustering partitions large data sets into groups according to their similarity. Clustering can also be used for outlier detection, where outliers (values that are “far away” from any cluster) may be more interesting than common cases. Applications of outlier detection include the detection of credit card fraud and the monitoring of criminal activities in electronic commerce. For example, exceptional cases in credit card transactions, such as very expensive and infrequent purchases, may be of interest as possible fraudulent activities.

Data clustering is under vigorous development. Contributing areas of research include data mining, statistics, machine learning, spatial database technology, information retrieval, Web search, biology, marketing, and many other application areas. Owing to the huge amounts of data collected in databases, cluster analysis has recently become a highly active topic in data mining research.

As a branch of statistics, cluster analysis has been extensively studied, with the main focus on distance-based cluster analysis. Cluster analysis tools based on k-means, k-medoids, and several other methods also have been built into many statistical analysis software packages or systems, such as S-Plus, SPSS, and SAS. In machine learning, recall that classification is known as supervised learning because the class label information is given, that is, the learning algorithm is supervised in that it is told the class membership of each training tuple.

Clustering is known as unsupervised learning because the class label information is not present. For this reason, clustering is a form of learning by observation, rather than learning by examples. 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 (e.g., nonconvex) and types of data (e.g., text, graphs, and images), high- dimensional clustering techniques (e.g., clustering objects with thousands of features), and methods for clustering mixed numerical and nominal data in large databases.

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