Analysis Types

Cluster Analysis – Types, Methods and Examples

Cluster Analysis

Cluster Analysis

Cluster analysis, also known as clustering, is a statistical technique used in machine learning and data mining that involves the grouping of objects or points in such a way that objects in the same group, also known as a cluster, are more similar to each other than to those in other groups. It is a main task of exploratory data analysis and is used in various fields, including machine learning, pattern recognition, image analysis, information retrieval, and bioinformatics.

Cluster Analysis in Research

in Research Cluster analysis is used to group a set of objects or observations into subsets called clusters. The goal of cluster analysis is to identify inherent patterns, similarities, or relationships within the data, by organizing the objects in a way that objects within the same cluster are more similar to each other than to those in other clusters.

Cluster Analysis Methodology

Cluster analysis is a multi-step process and the specific steps can vary somewhat depending on the specific technique being used. However, the general methodology is typically similar and can be outlined as follows:

  • Data preparation: The data you plan to cluster must be gathered, cleaned, and preprocessed. This can involve dealing with missing or erroneous data, transforming data into a usable format, normalizing data so that different scales can be compared, and reducing dimensionality if the data has a high number of variables.
  • Feature selection: This step involves deciding which variables or features will be used for clustering. The selected features should be relevant to the clustering task. Irrelevant or redundant features can distort the structure of the data and lead to poor clustering results.
  • Choice of clustering algorithm: Different clustering algorithms are suitable for different types of data and different clustering tasks. Some algorithms, like K-means, work best with spherical clusters of similar size, while others, like DBSCAN, can handle clusters of different shapes and sizes.
  • Parameter setting: Most clustering algorithms have parameters that need to be set before the algorithm can run. For example, the K-means algorithm requires the number of clusters to be specified in advance. These parameters can have a big impact on the clustering results, so they need to be chosen carefully.
  • Clustering: Run the clustering algorithm on your data. This will typically involve an iterative process where the algorithm continually adjusts the clusters until it finds the best fit for the data.
  • Cluster validation: After the clusters have been formed, it’s important to validate the results to ensure they make sense. This can involve statistical testing, comparison to known classes, or domain-specific validation methods.
  • Interpretation of results: The final step is to interpret the clustering results. This can involve analyzing the characteristics of each cluster, visualizing the clusters, or using the clusters for some subsequent analysis.

Types of Cluster Analysis

Cluster analysis is a versatile process with various types that can be used depending on the specific needs of a task. Here are some common types of cluster analysis:

Partitioning Clustering

This type of clustering divides data into a set of mutually exclusive clusters. The most well-known method in this category is the K-means clustering algorithm, where ‘K’ refers to the pre-specified number of clusters. These methods typically start with a random partitioning of data and refine it through an iterative process.

Hierarchical Clustering

This type of clustering creates a tree of clusters. Hierarchical clustering, not only clusters the data, but also builds a hierarchy of clusters, like a binary tree structure. It comes in two flavors:

  • Agglomerative (Bottom-Up): Each data point starts in its own cluster and pairs of clusters are merged as one moves up the hierarchy.
  • Divisive (Top-Down): All data points start in one cluster, and splits are performed recursively as one moves down the hierarchy.

Density-Based Clustering

These types of algorithms look for areas in the feature space where there are high densities of observations. The most famous of these is DBSCAN (Density-Based Spatial Clustering of Applications with Noise). It works by defining a neighborhood around a data point and if there are a minimum number of points within this neighborhood then a cluster is started.

Grid-Based Clustering

These types of algorithms quantize the space into a finite number of cells forming a grid structure and perform all clustering operations on this obtained grid structure. The primary advantage of these algorithms is its fast processing time, which is typically dependent on the number of cells in each dimension in the quantized space.

Model-Based Clustering

These algorithms hypothesize a model for each cluster and find the best fit of data to a given model. Examples of these are Gaussian Mixture Models and Expectation-Maximization algorithms. The advantage here is the model provides a probabilistic framework for estimating the characteristics of the process generating the data.

Subspace Clustering or Biclustering

While in standard clustering, an object belongs to exactly one cluster, in subspace clustering, an object can belong to more than one cluster and each cluster is associated with a subset of the dimensions. This type of clustering is particularly useful for high-dimensional data where each dimension represents a feature of the data.

Cluster Analysis Formulas

Here are some of the key formulas and mathematical concepts used in various cluster analysis methods.

K-means Clustering:

The main objective in K-means is to minimize the within-cluster variance, which is typically measured by Euclidean distance. The formula for Euclidean distance between two points x and y in n dimensional space is:

Where n is the number of dimensions, x_i is the i-th coordinate of point x, and y_i is the i-th coordinate of point y.

The objective function for K-means, which needs to be minimized, is the sum of the Euclidean distances from each data point to the center of the cluster (centroid) it was assigned to. Here’s how the formula looks like:

Where ||x_i - v_j|| is the Euclidean distance from data point i to the centroid of cluster j, and w_ij equals 1 if point i belongs to cluster j and 0 otherwise.

Hierarchical Clustering:

In hierarchical clustering, we use different types of linkage methods to find the distance between clusters, which can be single linkage (minimum distance), complete linkage (maximum distance), average linkage, and centroid linkage. Here are the formulas for single and complete linkage methods:

Single Linkage: d(S,T) = min {d(s,t) : s ∈ S, t ∈ T}

Complete Linkage: d(S,T) = max {d(s,t) : s ∈ S, t ∈ T}

Where S and T are two different clusters, s and t are any two points in clusters

S and T respectively, and d(s,t) is the distance between points s and t.

DBSCAN (Density-Based Spatial Clustering of Applications with Noise):

There isn’t a single formula for DBSCAN like there is for K-means or distance measures in hierarchical clustering. DBSCAN involves more of a procedural algorithm, with key concepts like ε (eps) which is the maximum distance between two samples for them to be considered as in the same neighborhood, and minimum samples which is the minimum number of samples in a neighborhood for a data point to qualify as a core point.

Examples of Cluster Analysis

Examples of Cluster Analysis are as follows:

  • A company wants to launch a new product, and it first needs to identify its target market. By conducting a cluster analysis on its customer data (considering variables such as age, income, past purchasing behavior, geographical location, etc.), the company can identify distinct groups of customers who may respond differently to the new product. For instance, a segment may consist of high-income young adults who are early technology adopters, and they can be targeted with specific marketing strategies.
  • Hospitals and health systems use cluster analysis to improve patient care and operational efficiency. For example, a hospital may group patients based on their symptoms, medical history, and demographics to predict health outcomes and personalize treatments. Also, cluster analysis can be used to identify patterns in the admission rates and optimize staffing and resource allocation accordingly.
  • Banks and financial institutions often use clustering techniques for credit scoring. By clustering clients based on their credit history, income, and other financial data, they can predict the risk of default for new clients and make informed decisions on loan approvals.
  • Telecom companies can use cluster analysis to understand the usage patterns of their customers. This can be based on calling behavior, data usage, recharge patterns, etc. The insights obtained can then be used for customer segmentation, targeted marketing, and customer churn prediction.
  • Online retailers can use cluster analysis for product recommendation systems. By clustering users who have similar browsing and purchasing behaviors, they can recommend products that similar users have liked or bought in the past.
  • Cities and municipalities can use cluster analysis to optimize public transportation routes. By clustering areas based on demand, distance, population density, etc., they can design bus or train routes that efficiently serve the needs of the community.
  • Educational institutions can use cluster analysis to group students based on their performance, learning styles, interests, etc. This can help in personalizing teaching methods, identifying students who may need additional support, and creating effective academic programs.

Applications of Cluster Analysis

Cluster analysis is widely used across many disciplines and industries, given its ability to uncover hidden patterns and groupings within data. Here are some of its key applications:

  • Business and Marketing: In customer segmentation, businesses use clustering to group customers based on similar behaviors or preferences. This enables targeted marketing, improves customer service, and aids in product development.
  • Healthcare and Medicine: Clustering is used for patient classification based on symptoms, genetics, or response to treatments. This can guide diagnoses and therapeutic strategies. It’s also used in genomic research, such as clustering genes with similar expression patterns.
  • Finance: Financial institutions use cluster analysis for portfolio management, risk analysis, and customer segmentation. For instance, customers can be grouped based on their credit scores, income levels, and investment behaviors, allowing for customized financial advice.
  • Environment: Clustering can help in identifying geographical areas with similar climate patterns or biodiversity, which is useful for environmental management and conservation planning.
  • Information Technology: In data mining, clustering is used to discover patterns and associations in large datasets. In cybersecurity, it’s used for anomaly detection to identify unusual patterns or activities.
  • Social Science: Cluster analysis is used to identify groups with similar social behaviors, attitudes, or characteristics. For instance, it can be used to segment populations based on socio-economic variables.
  • Transportation: Cities can use clustering to identify busy hubs or traffic patterns, helping in urban planning and public transport route optimization.
  • Education: Clustering is used to group students based on their learning patterns and performance. This can inform differentiated instruction strategies and early intervention efforts.
  • Astronomy: Astronomers use cluster analysis to categorize stars and galaxies based on their properties.
  • Telecommunications: Telecommunication companies use clustering for network traffic analysis, infrastructure optimization, and customer segmentation.

When to use Cluster Analysis

Cluster analysis is a useful tool when you want to explore your data to find patterns or groupings. Here are some instances where it would be appropriate to use cluster analysis:

  • Understanding Variations: If you have a large amount of data and you want to understand the differences and similarities within your data, cluster analysis can be an effective tool. It allows you to identify the structures in your data and group similar data together.
  • Exploratory Data Analysis: If you are in the early stages of your research and are not sure what you are looking for, cluster analysis can help you to identify patterns, spot anomalies, test hypotheses, or check assumptions.
  • Feature Engineering: Cluster analysis can be used to create new features that can capture the underlying structures in the data. These new features can be used to improve the performance of machine learning models.
  • Segmentation: If you need to segment your market, customers, users, or any other type of entity, cluster analysis can be an effective approach. For example, it is commonly used in marketing to identify different customer segments based on their buying behavior or preferences.
  • Dimensionality Reduction: If your data is high-dimensional (i.e., it has a large number of features), cluster analysis can be used to reduce its dimensionality. This can make the data easier to visualize or to work with.
  • Anomaly Detection: Cluster analysis can be used to detect outliers or anomalies in your data. Anything that doesn’t fit well into any of the identified clusters may be considered an anomaly and could be worth investigating.
  • Preprocessing: Cluster analysis can also be used as a preprocessing step for other machine learning algorithms. For instance, you could use cluster analysis to group your data, then train a separate machine learning model for each cluster.

Advantages of Cluster Analysis

Advantages of Cluster Analysis are as follows:

  • Unsupervised Learning: Cluster analysis doesn’t require labeled data, making it a useful tool for exploratory analysis. It can find patterns and structures in the data that may not be immediately apparent.
  • Versatility: Clustering can be applied across a wide range of disciplines and fields. Whether it’s market segmentation in business, image segmentation in computer vision, or pattern discovery in genomics, cluster analysis has a variety of uses.
  • Simplicity: Some clustering algorithms, such as K-means, are relatively simple to understand and implement. This makes them accessible to analysts and researchers.
  • Insight Extraction: Cluster analysis helps in uncovering meaningful insights from complex and large datasets. This is particularly useful in big data applications where manually interpreting data would be impractical.
  • Data Summarization: Clustering provides a way to summarize the data by grouping similar observations together. This is useful in large datasets where the sheer volume of data makes it hard to analyze individual data points.
  • Anomaly Detection: Clustering can help in identifying outliers or anomalies. Points that are not part of any cluster or are far from the rest of the points in their cluster could be considered anomalous.
  • Preprocessing Step: Clustering can be used as a preprocessing step in machine learning and data mining to improve computational efficiency or the performance of algorithms.
  • Feature Creation: Clustering can be used to create new features that can be used in other machine learning models. For example, cluster assignments or distances to cluster centroids could be used as new features.

Disadvantages of Cluster Analysis

Disadvantages of Cluster Analysis are as follows:

  • Subjectivity: One of the main challenges with cluster analysis is the interpretation of the results. As it’s an unsupervised learning technique, the clusters are not pre-defined and their interpretation can be subjective and not always straightforward.
  • Choosing the Number of Clusters: In some clustering methods like K-means, the number of clusters needs to be specified beforehand. Choosing an inappropriate number of clusters can lead to poor clustering performance. Although there are methods to help determine the optimal number of clusters, they often provide a range rather than a definitive answer.
  • Sensitivity to Initialization and Local Optima: Some algorithms, such as K-means, are sensitive to the initial choice of centroids. Different initializations may yield different results. Also, these algorithms can sometimes converge to a local optimum rather than the global optimum.
  • Assumptions about Cluster Shape and Size: Many clustering algorithms make certain assumptions about the shape and size of the clusters. For instance, K-means assumes that clusters are spherical and roughly equal in size. If these assumptions are not met, the clustering results may be poor.
  • Difficulty with High-Dimensional Data: Clustering can become challenging when dealing with high-dimensional data. The distance between points becomes less meaningful in high-dimensional spaces (a problem often referred to as the “curse of dimensionality”), which can degrade the performance of clustering algorithms.
  • Sensitivity to Noise and Outliers: Many clustering algorithms are sensitive to noise and outliers in the data. A few unusual data points can significantly influence the shape and size of the clusters.
  • Scalability: Some clustering methods can be computationally intensive, especially with large datasets. This could make them unsuitable for applications that require real-time clustering of streaming data.
  • Lack of Predictive Power: Unlike supervised learning models, clustering models typically do not predict an outcome or a target variable. They are primarily used for understanding the underlying structure of the data.

Also see Correlation Analysis

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer