How to Use Random Forests for Feature Selection in Machine Learning

If you're interested in machine learning, you ought to know something about feature selection. This is the process of identifying the most important variables in a dataset, and discarding the rest. Feature selection can be critical, because if your dataset has too many variables, it can be difficult or impossible to build an accurate model. On the other hand, if you don't have enough variables, your model might miss important relationships in the data.

In this article, we'll explore how to use Random Forests to conduct feature selection. Random Forests is a popular and powerful algorithm in machine learning, and it can be used for a wide range of tasks, including regression, classification, and feature selection.

So, let's get started!

What is a Random Forest?

A Random Forest is an ensemble learning method that combines multiple decision trees. The idea is simple: you create a large number of decision trees, and combine their predictions to get a more accurate result. Each decision tree is trained on a different subset of the training data, and a different subset of the variables. This helps to ensure that the trees are independent, and that they capture different aspects of the dataset.

But why would you want to use an ensemble method like Random Forests? One reason is that it can help to reduce overfitting. Overfitting occurs when a model is too complex, and it fits the training data too closely. This can lead to poor performance on new data, because the model has essentially memorized the training data, rather than learning the underlying relationships.

Random Forests can help to reduce overfitting because each tree is trained on a different subset of the training data. By combining the predictions of multiple trees, you get a more stable and robust result that is less likely to overfit.

How does a Random Forest do feature selection?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what a Random Forest is, let's talk about how it can be used for feature selection.

The idea behind Random Forests for feature selection is simple: you first train a Random Forest on the entire dataset, and then you look at the importance of each variable in the model. The importance of a variable is measured by the reduction in accuracy when that variable is removed from the model.

Variables that are important in the model are kept, and variables that are not important are discarded. This process is repeated until the desired number of variables remains.

But how do you actually measure variable importance in a Random Forest? The answer is based on the concept of Gini impurity.

In a decision tree, Gini impurity is a measure of the degree of randomness or impurity in the data. A low Gini impurity means that the data is very homogeneous, while a high Gini impurity means that the data is very heterogeneous.

In a Random Forest, the Gini impurity is used to measure the importance of each variable. Each time a decision tree splits on a variable, the Gini impurity is reduced. Importantly, the improvement in Gini impurity is averaged over all the trees in the forest.

Variables that consistently reduce the Gini impurity across all the trees in the model are considered to be important. Variables that do not reduce the Gini impurity are considered to be unimportant.

How to Implement Random Forest Feature Selection in Python

Now that we've explored the theory behind Random Forests feature selection, let's demonstrate how to implement it in Python.

We'll use a sample dataset from the UCI Machine Learning Repository. This dataset contains information on wines from three different cultivars, and the goal is to predict the cultivar based on various chemical properties of the wine.

First, let's load the dataset into a pandas DataFrame:

import pandas as pd

url = ''
cols = ['Cultivar', 'Alcohol', 'Malic acid', 'Ash', 'Alcalinity of ash', 'Magnesium', 'Total phenols', 'Flavanoids',
        'Nonflavanoid phenols', 'Proanthocyanins', 'Color intensity', 'Hue', 'OD280/OD315 of diluted wines', 'Proline']
df = pd.read_csv(url, header=None, names=cols)

Next, let's split the dataset into training and test sets:

from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split

X = df.drop(columns='Cultivar')
y = df['Cultivar']
X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(X, y, test_size=0.33, random_state=42)

Before we can train the Random Forest, we need to scale the data:

from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler

scaler = StandardScaler()
X_train_scaled = scaler.fit_transform(X_train)
X_test_scaled = scaler.transform(X_test)

Now, we can train the Random Forest using the scaled training data:

from sklearn.ensemble import RandomForestClassifier

rfc = RandomForestClassifier(random_state=42), y_train)

Once the Random Forest is trained, we can use the feature_importances_ attribute to get the importance of each variable:

importances = rfc.feature_importances_

We can then plot the importance of each variable:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt, importances)

Feature Importance Plot

From the plot, we can see that the most important variables are color intensity, flavanoids, and OD280/OD315 of diluted wines.

To use the Random Forest for feature selection, we can simply select the top N important variables:

N = 5
selected_features = X.columns[importances.argsort()[::-1][:N]]
# Output: Index(['Color intensity', 'Flavanoids', 'OD280/OD315 of diluted wines', 'Alcohol', 'Proline'], dtype='object')

In this example, we've selected the top 5 important variables.


In this article, we've explored how to use Random Forests for feature selection in machine learning. We've seen that Random Forests can be a powerful tool for identifying the most important variables in a dataset, and that it can help to reduce overfitting and improve the performance of the model.

We've also demonstrated how to implement Random Forests feature selection in Python using scikit-learn. Finally, we've shown how to plot the importance of each variable and select the most important variables for use in the model.

By using Random Forests for feature selection, you can build more accurate and efficient machine learning models. Give it a try on your next project!

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