Interview :Dr Graham Williams

(Updated with comments from Dr Graham in the comments section )

I have often talked about how the Graphical User Interface ,Rattle for R language makes learning R and building models quite simple. Rattle‘s latest version has been released and got extensive publicity including in KD Nuggets .I wrote to it’s creator Dr Graham, and he agreed for an extensive interview explaining data mining, its evolution and the philosophy and logic behind open source languages like R as well as Rattle.

Dr Graham Williams is the author of the Rattle data mining software and Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra and Australian National University.  Rattle is available from

Ajay Could you describe your career journey . What made you enter this field and what experiences helped shape your perspectives . What would your advice be to young professionals entering this field today.

Graham – With a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (topic: combining multiple decision trees to build ensembles) and a strong interest in practical applications, I started out in the late 1980’s developing expert systems for business and government, including bank loan assessment systems and bush fire prediction.

When data mining emerged as a discipline in the early 1990’s I was involved in setting up the first data mining team in Australia with the government research organization (CSIRO). In 2004 I joined the Australian Taxation Office and provide the technical lead for the deployment of its Analytics team, overseeing the development of a data
mining capability. I have been teaching data mining at the Australian National University (and elsewhere) since 1995 and continue to do so.

The business needs for Data Mining and Analytics continues to grow, although courses in Data Mining are still not so common. A data miner combines good backgrounds in Computer Science and Statistics. The Computer Science is too little emphasized, but is crucial for skills in developing repeatable procedures and good software engineering
practices, which I believe to be important in Data Mining.

Data Mining is more than just using a point and click graphical user interface (GUI). It is an experimental endeavor where we really need to be able to follow our nose as we explore through our data, and then capture the whole process in an automatically repeatable manner that can be readily communicated to others. A programming language offers this sophisticated level of communications.

Too often, I see analysts, when given a new dataset that updates last years data, essentially start from scratch with the data pre-processing, cleaning, and then mining, rather than beginning with last year’s captured processes and tuning to this year’s data.  The GUI generation of software often does not encourage repeatability.

Ajay -What made you get involved with R . What is the advantage of using Rattle
versus normal R.

Graham- I have used Clementine and SAS Enterprise miner over many years (and IBM’s original Intelligent Miner and Thinking Machines’ Darwin, and many other tools that emerged early on with Data Mining). Commercial vendors come and go (even large one’s like IBM, in terms of the products they support).

Lock-in is one problem with commercial tools. Another is that many vendors, understandably, won’t put resources into new algorithms until they are well accepted.
Because it is open source, R is robust, reliable, and provides access to the most advanced statistics. Many research Statisticians publish their new algorithms in R. But what is most important is that the source code is always going to be available. Not everyone has the skill to delve into that source code, but at least we have a chance to
do so. We also know that there is a team of highly qualified developers whose work is openly peer reviewed. I can monitor their coding changes, if I so wanted.  This helps ensure quality and integrity.

Rolling out R to a community of data analysts, though, does present challenges. Being primarily a language for statistics, we need to learn to speak that language. That is, we need to communicate with language rather than pictures (or GUI). It is, of course, easier to draw pictures, but pictures can be limiting. I believe a written language allows us to express and communicate ideas better and more formally. But it needs to be with the philosophy that we are communicating those ideas to our fellow humans, not just writing code to be executed by the computer.

Nonetheless, GUIs are great as memory aides, for doing simple tasks, and for learning how to perform particular tasks. Rattle aims to do the standard data mining steps, but to also expose everything that is done as R commands in the log. In fact, the log is designed to be able to be run as an R script, and to teach the user the R commands.

Ajay- What are the advantages of using Rattle  instead of SAS or SPSS. What are the disadvantages of using Rattle instead of SAS or SPSS.

Graham- Because it is free and open source, Rattle (and R) can be readily used in teaching data mining.  In business it is, initially, useful for people who want to experiment with data mining without the sometimes quite significant up front costs of the commercial offerings. For serious data mining, Rattle and R offers all of the data mining algorithms offered by the commercial vendors, but also many more. Rattle provides a simple, tab-based, user interface which is not as graphically sophisticated as Clementine in SPSS and SAS Enterprise Miner.

But with just 4 button clicks you will have built your first data mining model.

The usual disadvantage quoted for R (and so Rattle) is in the handling of large datasets – SAS and SPSS can handle datasets out of memory although they do slow down when doing so. R is memory based, so going to a 64bit platform is often necessary for the larger datasets. A very rough rule of thumb has been that the 2-3GB limit of the common 32bit processors can handle a dataset of up to about 50,000 rows with 100 columns (or 100,000 rows and 10 columns, etc), depending on the algorithms you deploy. I generally recommend, as quite a powerful yet inexpensive data mining machine, one running on an AMD64 processor, running the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, with as much memory as you can afford (e.g., 4GB to 32GB, although some machines today can go up to 128 GB, but memory gets expensive at that end of the scale).

Ajay – Rattle is free to download and use- yet it must have taken you some time
to build it.What are your revenue streams to support your time and efforts?

Graham –Yes, Rattle is free software: free for anyone to use, free to review the code, free to extend the code, free to use it for whatever purpose.  I have been developing Rattle for a few years now, with a number of
contributions from other users. Rattle, of course, gets its full power from R. The R community works together to help each other,
and others, for the benefit of all. Rattle and R can be the basic toolkit for knowledge workers providing analyses. I know of a number of data mining consultants around the world who are using Rattle to support their day-to-day consultancy work.

As a company, Togaware provides user support, installations of R and Rattle, runs training in using Rattle and in doing data mining. It also delivers data mining projects to clients. Togaware also provides support for incorporating Rattle (and R) into other products (e.g., as RStat for Information Builders).

Ajay – What is your vision of analytics for the future. How do you think the recession of 2008 and slowdown in 2009 will affect choice of softwares.

Graham- Watching the growth of data mining and analytics over the past 18 years it does seem that there has been and continues to be a monotonically increasing interest and demand for Analytics. Analytics continues to demonstrate benefit.

The global financial crisis, as others have suggested, should lead organizations to consider alternatives to expensive software. Good quality free and open source software has been available for a while now, but the typical CTO is still more comfortable purchasing expensive software. A purchase gives some sense of (false?) security but formally provides no warranty. My philosophy has been that we
should invest in our people, within an organization, and treat software as a commodity, that we openly contribute back into.

Imagine a world where we only use free open source software. The savings made by all will be substantial (consider OpenOffice versus MS/Office license fees paid by governments world wide, or Rattle versus SAS Enterprise Miner annual license fees). A small part of that saving might be expended on ensuring we have staff who are capable of understanding and extending that software to suit our needs, rather than vice versa (i.e., changing our needs to suit the software). We feed our extensions back into the grid of open source software, whilst also benefiting from contributions others are making. Some commercial vendors like to call this “communism” as part of their attempt to discredit open source, but we had better learn to share, for the good of the planet, before we lose it.

( Note from Ajay – If you are curious to try R , and have just 15 minutes to try it in, download Rattle from It has a click and point  interface and auto generates R code in it’s log. Trust me, it would time well spent.)

Author: Ajay Ohri

4 thoughts on “Interview :Dr Graham Williams”

  1. Thanks for the comments Bob. Let me add a little more to my ramblings…..

    On the data sizes, they are based on ad-hoc experience, not science so
    don’t place too much weight on them. The figures will depend on what
    models you are building and how the algorithms handle data (rpart or
    SVM or RWeka – they all have very different profiles in their data

    When Clementine (now SPSS Clementine) introduced the flowchart for
    data mining it was clearly a step forward. And SAS’s implementation
    was great to see. The recent R based toolkit for implementing
    flowchart interfaces will provide that option for R based applications
    and I look forward to their emergence

    The flowchart interface and GUIs in general are great. They take the
    pain out of remembering commands and their syntax, and can support
    repeatability, but do less to capture intent. But I feel that they
    don’t encourage understanding, recording of intent, or reuse. They do
    encourage building complexity without necessarily understanding
    it. For example, it is not easy to document your nodes in the SAS
    flowchart (although I understand this will get easier). I want to
    record why data was transformed in some particular way or why one
    model was used rather than another model. I want to tell a story, not kust draw a picture.

    When I come back to a very complex flowchart in three months (or have another complex flowchart handed over to me) I need to try and rediscover why all of the decisions that lead to alternative flows were considered, why particular transforms were considered and whether others were tried.

    Of course, this requires discipline and good practise, and I could
    record all this in some other document. But this is an integral part
    of data mining (and software development – I view data mining as
    programming and programming as building models of the world – a model
    in the data mining context is a program that we intend to deploy). We
    need to capture experience and knowledge and build on it. Programming
    encourages this, and literate programming gets the focus right
    (document the process and intermix it with the procedures to implement

    Note that these comments apply also to Rattle. In Rattle, by
    exposing the Log as an editable script (and eventually, as time
    permits, a Sweave document) I hope to encourage users to document
    processes as they proceed, and to look for automation opportunities at
    every step. Rattle will provide, as part of the process, a template
    document, as the log, where the user can record decisions and note
    rationale. It still requires discipline from the user.

    Rattle did not try to replicate the flowchart. The original goal
    (which has now evolved quite a lot with Rattle) was to provide a
    simple, low overhead, and quick entree to R: illustrate how to load a
    dataset, build a model, evaluate and deploy – and display the 4 lines
    of R code to do that. The user could then paste these commands into R
    and do a lot more sophisticated modelling with all that R provides.

    Of course, Rattle grew to include many tuning options, all building on
    the tools freely available in R. Still one aim is to provide an entree
    to R – hence, another reason for a focus on ensuring we expose
    repeatable R commands in the Log tab.

    I do think that having a good understanding of an expressive
    underlying written language can provide more benefit than a GUI or

    Maybe there’s an analogy here… a painting can capture
    complexity and tell stories, but significant character development and
    complex plot twists remains in the realm of the written language. The
    written language helps the reader travel along the journey, to tell a story, rather than just presenting a large breathtaking picture.

    What I look for is expressiveness, power to do many tasks simply,
    easily and efficiently, to capture what and why, and to share that
    with others so I can learn from them and they from I. The current GUIs
    are not there yet – expressing our models in a written language, I
    believe, still helps to deliver more unambiguous understanding,
    efficiency, repeatability, expressibility, and sharing. I get
    more understanding out of the comprehensive R script given to me by a
    colleague to build upon and extend and reapply, than the complex
    flowchart where I need to interpret much more.

    Of course, R, SPSS, and SAS all have underlying languages. One
    advantage of R is that we can speak and share the language freely, and
    innovate freely within the language.

  2. Thanks for the interesting perspective! I’m particularly intrigued by the 50,000 cases/100 variable/2GB rule of thumb for a 32-bit OS (each process has a 2 GB limit, I think). Does it scale up linearly so that, for example, a 64-bit OS with 3GB to devote to R would handle 100,000/100? (The 64-bit machines I see for sale often come with 4GB of RAM and I’m assuming the OS would need 1GB.)

    Of course statistics shows how a sample of just a few thousand is generally adequate for most needs. Your database can get you that.

    I think one of the most important changes in the analytics field was the introduction of the flowchart interface used by Clementine and Enterprise Miner. This is because, as you point out, GUI use often does not encourage repeatability. The SPSS Excel-like (or R Commander-like) interface is really easy to learn because people are familiar with it from word processing, etc. But my clients who use that interface often come it asking why they cannot replicate a previous result. Who knows? They’re clicking different options now and, if they did not save the resulting program, they’re clueless. And why should they save that program? They don’t know what it means! That’s not the interface they comprehend.

    With the flowchart GUI, every step is saved, and saved in the form that the user created in the first place. Re-use with next month’s data is easy. Plus you can glance at a fairly complicated analysis (on a big screen) and quickly see what happened. When I learned to program in FORTRAN too many years ago, we did a flowchart before we began programming, so this is a pretty old idea.

    If Rattle saves the settings for an analysis, that would cover the reuse angle. Since you have experience with Enterprise Miner and Clementine, what are your thoughts about the tabbed-dialog approach of Rattle compared to the flowchart approach?

    I guess I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth here, so let me conclude by saying I think that Rattle is an important contribution to the field of data mining. I may like the flowchart GUI, but many companies cannot afford the six-figure price tag. Thanks for writing it!

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