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Feature Engineering for Machine Learning by Amanda Casari, Alice Zheng

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Chapter 2. Fancy Tricks with Simple Numbers

Before diving into complex data types such as text and image, let’s start with the simplest: numeric data. This may come from a variety of sources: geolocation of a place or a person, the price of a purchase, measurements from a sensor, traffic counts, etc. Numeric data is already in a format that’s easily ingestible by mathematical models. This doesn’t mean that feature engineering is no longer necessary, though. Good features should not only represent salient aspects of the data, but also conform to the assumptions of the model. Hence, transformations are often necessary. Numeric feature engineering techniques are fundamental. They can be applied whenever raw data is converted into numeric features.

The first sanity check for numeric data is whether the magnitude matters. Do we just need to know whether it’s positive or negative? Or perhaps we only need to know the magnitude at a very coarse granularity? This sanity check is particularly important for automatically accrued numbers such as counts—the number of daily visits to a website, the number of reviews garnered by a restaurant, etc.

Next, consider the scale of the features. What are the largest and the smallest values? Do they span several orders of magnitude? Models that are smooth functions of input features are sensitive to the scale of the input. For example, 3x + 1 is a simple linear function of the input x, and the scale of its output depends directly on the scale of the ...

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