Explainable k-Means and k-Medians Clustering

Michal Moshkovitz · Sanjoy Dasgupta · Cyrus Rashtchian · Nave Frost

Keywords: [ Clustering ] [ Learning Theory ] [ Unsupervised and Semi-supervised Learning ] [ Accountability, Transparency and Interpretability ]


Many clustering algorithms lead to cluster assignments that are hard to explain, partially because they depend on all the features of the data in a complicated way. To improve interpretability, we consider using a small decision tree to partition a data set into clusters, so that clusters can be characterized in a straightforward manner. We study this problem from a theoretical viewpoint, measuring cluster quality by the k-means and k-medians objectives. In terms of negative results, we show that popular top-down decision tree algorithms may lead to clusterings with arbitrarily large cost, and any clustering based on a tree with k leaves must incur an Omega(log k) approximation factor compared to the optimal clustering. On the positive side, for two means/medians, we show that a single threshold cut can achieve a constant factor approximation, and we give nearly-matching lower bounds; for general k > 2, we design an efficient algorithm that leads to an O(k) approximation to the optimal k-medians and an O(k^2) approximation to the optimal k-means. Prior to our work, no algorithms were known with provable guarantees independent of dimension and input size.

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