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What the Heck is Data Mining?

Data Mining

Generally, data mining (sometimes called data or knowledge discovery) is the process of analyzing data from different perspectives and summarizing it into useful information. It is sometimes used synonymously with data analysis or exploratory data analysis, but it is different from these, as we will see later. The information obtained from data mining can be used to increase revenue, cuts costs, or both. Data mining software is one of a number of analytical tools for analyzing data. It allows users to analyze data from many different dimensions or angles, categorize it, and summarize the relationships identified.

Data Miners

Data Miners apply analytic processes designed to explore data (usually large amounts of data – typically business or market related – also known as “big data”) in search of consistent patterns and/or systematic relationships between variables, and then to validate the findings by applying the detected patterns to new subsets of data. One goal of data mining is prediction – and predictive data mining is the most common type of data mining and one that has the most direct business applications.

The Data Mining Process

The process of data mining consists of three stages: (1) the initial exploration, (2) model building or pattern identification with validation/verification, and (3) deployment (i.e., the application of the model to new data in order to generate predictions).

Exploration

The first stage usually starts with data preparation which may involve cleaning data, data transformations, selecting subsets of records and – in case of data sets with large numbers of variables (“fields”) – performing some preliminary feature selection operations to bring the number of variables to a manageable range (depending on the statistical methods which are being considered). Then, depending on the nature of the analytic problem, this first stage of the process of data mining may involve anywhere between a simple choice of straightforward predictors for a regression model, to elaborate exploratory analyses using a wide variety of graphical and statistical methods (see Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA)) in order to identify the most relevant variables and determine the complexity and/or the general nature of models that can be taken into account in the next stage.

Model Building and Validation

The second stage involves considering various models and choosing the best one based on their predictive performance (i.e., explaining the variability in question and producing stable results across samples). This may sound like a simple operation, but in fact, it sometimes involves a very elaborate process. There are a variety of techniques developed to achieve that goal – many of which are based on so-called “competitive evaluation of models,” that is, applying different models to the same data set and then comparing their performance to choose the best. These techniques – which are often considered the core of predictive data mining – include: Bagging (Voting, Averaging), Boosting, Stacking (Stacked Generalizations), and Meta-Learning.

Deployment

The final stage involves using the model selected as best in the previous stage and applying it to new data in order to generate predictions or estimates of the expected outcome.

Data Mining and Statistics

The concept of Data Mining is becoming increasingly popular as a business information management tool where it is expected to reveal knowledge structures that can guide decisions in conditions of limited certainty. Recently, there has been increased interest in developing new analytic techniques specifically designed to address the issues relevant to business Data Mining (e.g., Classification Trees), but Data Mining is still based on the conceptual principles of statistics including the traditional Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA) and modeling and it shares with them both some components of its general approaches and specific techniques.

Data Mining and Exploratory Data Analysis

However, there is an important general difference in the focus and purpose between Data Mining and the traditional Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA). Data Mining is more oriented towards applications than the basic nature of the underlying phenomena. In other words, Data Mining is relatively less concerned with identifying the specific relations between the involved variables. For example, uncovering the nature of the underlying functions or the specific types of interactive, multivariate dependencies between variables are not the main goal of Data Mining. Instead, the focus is on producing a solution that can generate useful predictions. Therefore, Data Mining accepts among others a “black box” approach to data exploration or knowledge discovery and uses not only the traditional Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA) techniques, but also such techniques as Neural Networks which can generate valid predictions but are not capable of identifying the specific nature of the interrelations between the variables on which the predictions are based.

Data Mining and Machine Learning

Data Mining is often considered to be “a blend of statistics, AI (artificial intelligence), and data base research” (Pregibon, 1997, p. 8), which until very recently was not commonly recognized as a field of interest for statisticians, and was even considered by some “a dirty word in Statistics” (Pregibon, 1997, p. 8). Due to its applied importance, however, the field emerges as a rapidly growing and major area (also in statistics) where important theoretical advances are being made (see, for example, the recent annual International Conferences on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, co-hosted by the American Statistical Association).

Data Mining Techniques

For information on Data Mining techniques, there are numerous books that review the theory and practice of data mining; the following books offer a representative sample of recent general books on data mining, representing a variety of approaches and perspectives:

  • Berry, M., J., A., & Linoff, G., S., (2000). Mastering data mining. New York: Wiley.
  • Edelstein, H., A. (1999). Introduction to data mining and knowledge discovery (3rd ed). Potomac, MD: Two Crows Corp.
  • Fayyad, U. M., Piatetsky-Shapiro, G., Smyth, P., & Uthurusamy, R. (1996). Advances in knowledge discovery & data mining. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Han, J., Kamber, M. (2000). Data mining: Concepts and Techniques. New York: Morgan-Kaufman.
  • Hastie, T., Tibshirani, R., & Friedman, J. H. (2001). The elements of statistical learning : Data mining, inference, and prediction. New York: Springer.
  • Pregibon, D. (1997). Data Mining. Statistical Computing and Graphics, 7, 8.
  • Weiss, S. M., & Indurkhya, N. (1997). Predictive data mining: A practical guide. New York: Morgan-Kaufman.
  • Westphal, C., Blaxton, T. (1998). Data mining solutions. New York: Wiley.
  • Witten, I. H., & Frank, E. (2000). Data mining. New York: Morgan-Kaufmann.

Profile_PicAuthored by:
Jeffrey Strickland, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Strickland, Ph.D., is the Author of Predictive Analytics Using R and a Senior Analytics Scientist with Clarity Solution Group. He has performed predictive modeling, simulation and analysis for the Department of Defense, NASA, the Missile Defense Agency, and the Financial and Insurance Industries for over 20 years. Jeff is a Certified Modeling and Simulation professional (CMSP) and an Associate Systems Engineering Professional (ASEP). He has published nearly 200 blogs on LinkedIn, is also a frequently invited guest speaker and the author of 20 books including:

  • Operations Research using Open-Source Tools
  • Discrete Event simulation using ExtendSim
  • Crime Analysis and Mapping
  • Missile Flight Simulation
  • Mathematical Modeling of Warfare and Combat Phenomenon
  • Predictive Modeling and Analytics
  • Using Math to Defeat the Enemy
  • Verification and Validation for Modeling and Simulation
  • Simulation Conceptual Modeling
  • System Engineering Process and Practices

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