Selective Association Rule Generation

Selective Association Rule Generation

Michael Hahsler and Christian Buchta and Kurt Hornik

Mining association rules is a popular and well researched method for discovering interesting relations between variables in large databases. A practical problem is that at medium to low support values often a large number of frequent itemsets and an even larger number of association rules are found in a database. A widely used approach is to gradually increase minimum support and minimum confidence or to filter the found rules using increasingly strict constraints on additional measures of interestingness until the set of rules found is reduced to a manageable size. In this paper we describe a different approach which is based on the idea to first define a set of “interesting” itemsets (e.g., by a mixture of mining and expert knowledge) and then, in a second step to selectively generate rules for only these itemsets. The main advantage of this approach over increasing thresholds or filtering rules is that the number of rules found is significantly reduced while at the same time it is not necessary to increase the support and confidence thresholds which might lead to missing important information in the database.

1 Motivation

Mining association rules is a popular and well researched method for discovering interesting relations between variables in large databases. Piatetsky-Shapiro (1991) describes analyzing and presenting strong rules discovered in databases using different measures of interestingness. Based on the concept of strong rules, Agrawal et al. (1993) introduced association rules for discovering regularities between products in large scale transaction data recorded by point-of-sale systems in supermarkets. For example, the rule

found in the sales data of a supermarket would indicate that if a customer buys onions and vegetables together, he or she is likely to also buy beef. Such information can be used as the basis for decisions about marketing activities such as, e.g., promotional pricing or product placements. Today, association rules are employed in many application areas including Web usage pattern analysis (Srivastava et al., 2000), intrusion detection (Luo & Bridges, 2000) and bioinformatics (Creighton & Hanash, 2003).

Formally, the problem of mining association rules from transaction data can be stated as follows (Agrawal et al., 1993). Let be a set of binary attributes called items. Let be a set of transactions called the database. Each transaction in  has a unique transaction ID and contains a subset of the items in . A rule is defined as an implication of the form where and . The sets of items (for short itemsets) and are called antecedent (left-hand-side or LHS) and consequent (right-hand-side or RHS) of the rule, respectively.

To select interesting rules from the set of all possible rules, constraints on various measures of significance and strength can be used. The best-known constraints are minimum thresholds on support and confidence. The support of an itemset is defined as the proportion of transactions in the data set which contain the itemset. All itemsets which have a support above a user-specified minimum support threshold are called frequent itemsets. The confidence of a rule is defined as . This can be interpreted as an estimate of the probability , the probability of finding the RHS of the rule in transactions under the condition that these transactions also contain the LHS (e.g., Hipp et al., 2000).

Association rules are required to satisfy a user-specified minimum support and a user-specified minimum confidence at the same time. Association rule generation is always a two-step process. First, minimum support is applied to find all frequent itemsets in a database. In a second step, these frequent itemsets and the minimum confidence constraint are used to form rules.

At medium to low support values, usually a large number of frequent itemsets and an even larger number of association rules are found in a database which makes analyzing the rules extremely time consuming or even impossible. Several solutions to this problem were proposed. A practical strategy is to either increase the user-specified support or confidence threshold to reduce the number of mined rules. It is also popular to filter or rank found rules using additional interest measures (e.g., the measures analyzed by Tan et al. (2004)). However, increasing thresholds and filtering rules till a manageable number is left can lead to the problem that only already obvious and well-known rules are found.

Alternatively, each rule found can be matched against a set of expert-generated rule templates to decide whether it is interesting or not (Klemettinen et al., 1994). For the same purpose, Imielinski & Virmani (1998) describe a query language to retrieve rules matching certain criteria from a large set of mined rules. A more efficient approach is to apply additional constraints on item appearance or on additional interest measures already during mining itemsets (e.g., Bayardo et al., 2000; Srikant et al., 1997). With this technique, the time to mine large databases and the number of found itemsets can significantly be reduced. The popular Apriori implementation by Borgelt (2006) as well as some commercial data mining tools provide a similar mechanism where the user can specify which items have to or cannot be part of the LHS or the RHS of the rule.

In this paper we discuss a new approach. Instead of treating mining association rules from transaction data as a single two-step process where maybe the structure of rules can be specified (e.g., by templates), we completely decouple rule generation from frequent itemset mining in order to gain more flexibility. With our approach, rules can be generated from an arbitrary sets of itemsets. This gives the analyst the possibility to use any method to define a set of “interesting” itemsets and then generate rules from only these itemsets. Interesting itemsets can be the result of using a mixture of additional constraints during mining, arbitrary filtering operations and expert knowledge.

2 Efficient selective rule generation

For convenience, we introduce for sets of itemsets. Analogously, we define for sets of rules.

Generating association rules is always separated into two tasks, first, mining all frequent itemsets  and then generating a set of rules  from . Extensive research exists for the first task (see, e.g., Hipp et al., 2000; Goethals & Zaki, 2004), therefore, we concentrate in the following on the second task, the rule generation.

In the general case of rules with an arbitrary size of the rule’s right-hand-side, for each itemset with size we have to check confidence for rules resulting from using all non-empty proper subsets  of as a rule’s RHS. For sets with large itemsets this clearly leads to an enormous computational burden. Therefore, most implementations and also this paper follows the original definition of Agrawal et al. (1993) who restrict to single items, which reduces the problem to only checks for an itemset of length .

The rule generation engine for the popular Apriori algorithm (e.g., the implementation by Borgelt (2003, 2006)) efficiently generates rules by reusing the data structure built level-wise during counting the support and determining the frequent itemsets. The data structure contains all support information and provides fast access for calculating rule confidences and other measures of interestingness.

If a set of itemsets  is generated by some other means, no such data structure might be available. Since the downward-closure property of support (Agrawal & Srikant, 1994) guarantees that for a frequent itemset also all its subsets are frequent, the data structure can be rebuilt from a complete set of all frequent itemsets and their support values. However, the aim of this paper is to efficiently induce rules from an arbitrary set of itemsets which, e.g., could be specified by an expert without the help of a data mining tool. In this case, the support information needed to calculate confidence is not available. For example, if all available information is an itemset containing five items and it is desired to generate all possible rules containing all items of this itemset, the support of the itemset (which we might know) and the supports of all its subsets of length four are needed. This missing support information has to be obtained from the database.

A simple method would be to reuse an implementation of the Apriori algorithm with the support of the least frequent itemset in . If this support is known, will be found. Otherwise, the user has to iteratively reduce the minimum support till the found contains all itemsets in . The rule generation engine will then produce the set of all rules which can be generated for all itemsets in . From this set all rules which do not stem from the itemsets in have to be filtered, leaving only the desired rules. Obviously, this is an ineffective method which potentially generates an enormous number of rules of which the majority has to be filtered, representing an additional large computational effort. The problem can be reduced using several restrictions. For example, we can restrict the maximal length of frequent itemsets to the length of the longest itemset in . Another reduction of computational complexity can be achieved by removing all items which do not occur in an itemset in from the database before mining. However, this process is still far from being efficient, especially if many itemsets in share some items or if contains some very infrequent itemsets.

To efficiently generate rules for a given confidence or other measure of rule strength from an arbitrary set of itemsets the following steps are necessary:

  1. Count the support values each itemset and the subsets needed for rule generation in a single pass over the database and store them in a suitable data structure.

  2. Populate set by selectively generating only rules for the itemsets in using the support information from the data structure created in step 1.

This approach has the advantage that no expensive rule filtering is necessary and that combinatorial explosion due to some very infrequent itemsets in is avoided.

The data structure for the needed support counters needs to provide fast access for counting and retrieving the support counts. A suitable data structure is a prefix tree (Knuth, 1997). Typically, prefix trees are used in frequent itemset mining as condensed representations for the databases. Here the items in transactions are lexically ordered and each node contains the occurrence counter for a prefix in the transactions. The nodes are organized such that nodes with a common prefix are in the same subtree. The database in Table 1 is represented by the prefix tree in Figure 1 where each node contains a prefix and the count for the prefix in the database. For example, the first transaction  was responsible for creating (if the nodes did not already exist) the nodes with the prefixes , and and increasing each node’s count by one.

Although adding transactions to a prefix tree is very efficient, obtaining the counts for itemsets from the tree is expensive since several nodes have to be visited and their counts have to be added up. For example, to retrieve the support of itemset  from the prefix tree in Figure 1, all nodes except , and have to be visited. Therefore, for selective rule generation, where the counts for individual itemsets have to be obtained, using such a transaction prefix tree is not very efficient.

TID Items
Table 1: Example database
Figure 1: Prefix tree as a condensed representation of a database.
Figure 2: Prefix tree for itemset counting. (a) contains the empty tree to count the needed itemsets for rules containing and (b) contains the counts.

For selective rule generation we use a prefix tree similar to the itemset tree described by Borgelt & Kruse (2002). However, we do not generate the tree level-wise, but we first generate a prefix tree which only contains the nodes necessary to hold the counters for all itemsets which need to be counted. For example, for generating rules for the itemset , we need to count the itemset and in addition , and . The corresponding prefix tree is shown in Figure 2(a). The tree contains the nodes for the itemsets plus the necessary nodes to make it a prefix tree and all counters are initialized with zero. Note that with an increasing number of itemsets, the growth of nodes in the tree will decrease since itemsets typically share items and thus will also share nodes in the tree.

count 1 if \lastbox\lastbox\lastbox\lastbox
Table 2: Recursive itemset counting function

After creating the tree, we count the itemsets for each transaction using the recursive function in Table 2. The function count is called with a transaction (as an array representing a totally ordered set of items) and the root node of the prefix tree. Initially, we test if the transaction is empty (line 1) and if so, the recursion is done. In line 2, we try to get the successor node of the current node that corresponds to the first item in . If a node is found, we increase the node’s counter and continue recursively counting with the remainder of the transaction (lines 4 and 5). Otherwise, no further counting is needed in this branch of the tree. Finally, we recursively count the transaction with the first element removed also into the subtree with the root node (line 6). This is necessary to count all itemsets that are covered by a transaction. For example, counting the transaction in the prefix tree in Figure 2 increases the nodes , , , , , and by one.

There are several options to implement the structure of an -ary prefix tree (e.g., each node contains an array of pointers or a hash table is used). In the implementation used for the experiments in this paper, we use a linked list to store all direct successors of a node. This structure is simple and memory-efficient but has the price of an increased time complexity for searching a successor node in the recursive itemset counting function (see line 2 in Table 2). However, this drawback can be mitigated by first ordering the items by their inverse item-frequency. This makes sure that items which occur often in the database are always placed near to the beginning of the linked lists.

After counting, the support for each itemset is contained in the node with the prefix equal to the itemset. Therefore, we can retrieve the needed support values from the prefix tree and generating the rules is straight forward.

3 Experimental results

We implemented the proposed selective rule generation procedure using C code and added it to the R package arules (Hahsler et al., 2007)111The source code is freely available and can be downloaded together with the package arules from Selective rule generation was added to arules in version 0.6-0.. To examine the efficiency we use the three different data sets shown in Table 3. The Adult data set was extracted by Kohavi (1996) from the census bureau database in 1994 and is available from the UCI Repository of Machine Learning Databases (Newman et al., 1998). The continuous attributes were mapped to ordinal attributes and each attribute’s values was coded by an item. The recoded data set is also included in package arules. T10I4D100K is an artificially generated standard data set using the procedure presented by Agrawal & Srikant (1994) which is used for evaluation in many papers. POS is an e-commerce data set containing several years of point-of-sale data which was provided by Blue Martini Software for the KDD Cup 2000 (Kohavi et al., 2000). The size of these three data sets varies from relatively small with less than 50,000 transactions and about 100 items to more than 500,000 transactions and 1,500 items. Also the sources are diverse and, therefore, using these data sets should provide insights into the efficiency of the proposed approach.

Adult T10I4D100K POS
Source questionnaire artificial e-commerce
Transactions 48,842 100,000 515,597
Mean transaction size 12.5 10.1 6.5
Median transaction size 13.0 10.0 4.0
Distinct items 115 870 1,657
Min. support 0.002 0.0001 0.00055
Min. confidence 0.8 0.8 0.8
Frequent itemsets 466,574 411,365 466,999
Rules 1.181,893 570,908 361,593
Table 3: The used data sets.

We compare the running time behavior of the proposed rule generation method with the highly optimized Apriori implementation by Borgelt (2006) which produces association rules. For Apriori, we use the following settings:

  • Instead of the support stated in Table 3, we use the smallest support value of an itemset in as the minimum support constraint and we restrict mining to itemsets no longer than the longest itemset in . Also, we remove all items which do not occur in from the database prior to mining. These settings significantly reduce the search space and therefore also Apriori’s execution time. However, it has to be noted that setting the minimum support requires that the support of all itemsets in is known. This is not the case if some itemsets in are defined by an expert without mining the database. In this case, one would have to use trial and error to find the optimal value.

  • For the comparison, we omit the expensive filter operation to find only the rules stemming from . Therefore, using Apriori for selective rule generation will take more than the reported time.

To generate for each data set a pool of interesting itemsets, we mine frequent itemsets with a minimum support such that we obtain between 400,000 and 500,000 itemsets (see Table 3). From this pool, we take random samples which represent the sets of itemsets we want to produce rules for. We use a minimum confidence of 0.8 for all experiments. We vary the size of from 1 to 20,000 itemsets, repeat the procedure for each size 100 times and report the average execution times for the three data sets in Figures 3 to 5.

Figure 3: Running time for the Adult data set.
Figure 4: Running time for the T10I4D100K data set.
Figure 5: Running time for the POS data set.

For Apriori, the execution time reaches a plateau already for a few 100 to a few 1000 itemsets in and is then almost constant, for all data sets considered. At that point Apriori already efficiently mines all rules up to the smallest necessary minimum support and the specified minimum confidence. The running time of the selective rule generation increases sub-linearly with the number of interesting itemsets. The increase results from the fact that with more itemsets in , the prefix tree increases in size and therefore the counting procedure has to visit more nodes and gets slower. The increase is sub-linear because with an increasing number of itemsets the chances increase that several itemsets share nodes which slows down the growth of the tree size.

Figures 3 to 5 show that for up to 20,000 itemsets in , the selective rule generation is usually much faster than mining rules with Apriori even though the expensive filtering procedure was omitted. Only on the Adult data set the proposed method is slower than Apriori for more than about 18,000 itemsets in . The reason is that at some point, the prefix tree for counting contains too many notes and performance deteriorates compared to the efficient level-wise counting of all frequent itemsets employed by Apriori.

The selective rule generation procedure represents an significant improvement for selectively mining rules for a small set of (a few thousand) interesting itemsets. On the modern desktop PC (we used a single core of an Intel Core2 CPU at 2.40 GHz), the results can be found typically under one second while using Apriori alone without filtering takes already several times that long. This improvement of getting results almost instantly is crucial since it enables the analyst to interactively examine data.

4 Application example

As a small example for the application of selective rule generation, we use the Mushroom data set (Newman et al., 1998) which describes 23 species of gilled mushrooms in the Agaricus and Lepiota family. The data set contains 8124 examples described by 23 nominal-valued attributes (e.g., cap-shape, odor and class (edible or poisonous)). By using one binary variable for each possible attribute value to indicate if an example possesses the attribute value, the 23 attributes are recoded into 128 binary items.

Using traditional techniques of association rule mining, an analyst could proceed as follows. Using a minimum support of 0.2 results in 45,397 frequent itemsets. With a minimum confidence of 0.9 this gives 281,623 rules. If the analyst is only interested in rules which indicate edibility, the following rule inclusive template can be used to filter rules:

any attribute* any class

Following the notation by Klemettinen et al. (1994), the LHS of the template means that it matches any combination of items for any attribute and the RHS only matches the two items derived from the attribute class (class=edible and class=poisonous). Using the rule template to filter the rules reduces the set to 18,328 rules which is clearly too large for visual inspection.

For selective rule generation introduced in this paper, the expert can decide which itemsets are of interest to gain new insights into the data. For example, the concept of frequent closed itemsets can be used to select interesting itemsets. Using frequent closed itemsets is an approach to reduce the number of mined itemsets without loss of information. An itemset is closed if no proper superset of the itemset is contained in each transaction in which the itemset is contained (Pasquier et al., 1999; Zaki, 2004). Frequent closed itemsets are a subset of frequent itemsets which preserve all support information available in frequent itemsets. Often the set of all frequent closed itemsets is considerably smaller than the set of all frequent itemsets and thus easier to handle.

Mining closed frequent itemsets on the Mushroom data set with a minimum support of 0.2 results in 1231 itemsets. By generating rules only for these itemsets we get 4688 rules. Using the rule template as above leaves 154 rules, which are way more manageable than the more than 100 times larger set obtained from just using frequent itemsets.

  lhs                       rhs              supp. conf.
1 {odor=none,
   ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}  0.331    1
2 {odor=none,
   ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}  0.331    1
3 {odor=none,
   stalk-shape=tapering} => {class=edible}  0.307    1
4 {odor=none,
   stalk-shape=tapering} => {class=edible}  0.307    1
5 {odor=none,
   ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}  0.307    1

Table 4: Rules generated from frequent itemsets.
  lhs                        rhs                supp. conf.
1 {odor=none,
    ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}     0.331   1
2 {odor=none,
    ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}     0.307   1
3 {odor=none,
    ring-number=one}      => {class=edible}     0.284   1
Table 5: Rules generated from frequent closed itemsets.

To compare the sets of rules from the set of frequent itemsets with the rules from the reduced set of (frequent closed) itemsets, we sort the found rules in descending order first by confidence and then by support. In Tables 4 and 5 we inspect the first few rules of each set. For the rules generated from frequent itemsets (Table 4) we see that rules 1 and 2, and also rules 3 to 5 each have exactly the same values for support and confidence. This can be explained by the fact that only items are added to the LHS of the rules which are also contained in every transaction the item in the LHS are contained in. For example, for rule 2 the item veil-type=partial is added to the LHS of rule 1. Depending on the type of application the rules are mined for, one of the rules is redundant. If the aim is prediction, the shorter rule suffices. If the aim is to understand the structure of the data, the longer rule is preferable. For rules 3 to 5 the redundancy is even bigger. Inspecting the rest of the rules reveals that for rule 3 a total of 38 redundant rules are contained in the set.

Using closed frequent itemsets avoids such redundancies while retaining all information which is present in the set of rules mined from frequent itemsets. For example, for the two redundant rules (rules 1 and 2 in Table 4) the first rule with {odor=none, gill-size=broad, ring-number=one} in the LHS is not present in Table 5. The second rule in Table 5 covers rules 3 to 5 in Table 4 plus 35 more rules (not shown in the table).

Using closed frequent itemsets is just one option. Using selective rule generation, the expert can define arbitrary sets of interesting itemsets to generate rules in an efficient way.

5 Conclusion

Mining rules not only for sets of frequent itemsets but from arbitrary sets of possibly even relatively infrequent itemsets can be helpful to concentrate on “interesting” itemsets. For this purpose, we described in this paper how to decouple the processes of frequent itemset mining and rule generation by proposing an procedure which obtains all needed information in a self-contained selective rule generation process. Since selective rule generation does not rely on finding frequent itemsets using a minimum support threshold, generating itemsets from itemsets with small support does not result in combinatorial explosion.

Experiments with several data sets show that the proposed process is efficient for small sets of interesting itemsets. Unlike existing methods based on frequent itemset mining, selective rule generation can support interactive data analysis by providing almost instantly the resulting rules. With a small application example using frequent closed itemsets instead as the interesting itemsets, we also illustrated that selective association rule generation can be useful for significantly reducing the number of rules found.


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