On the Persistence of Clustering Solutions and True Number of Clusters in a Dataset

Amber Srivastava, Mayank Baranwal, Srinivasa Salapaka

Typically clustering algorithms provide clustering solutions with prespecified number of clusters. The lack of a priori knowledge on the true number of underlying clusters in the dataset makes it important to have a metric to compare the clustering solutions with different number of clusters. This article quantifies a notion of persistence of clustering solutions that enables comparing solutions with different number of clusters. The persistence relates to the range of data-resolution scales over which a clustering solution persists; it is quantified in terms of the maximum over two-norms of all the associated cluster-covariance matrices. Thus we associate a persistence value for each element in a set of clustering solutions with different number of clusters. We show that the datasets where natural clusters are a priori known, the clustering solutions that identify the natural clusters are most persistent - in this way, this notion can be used to identify solutions with true number of clusters. Detailed experiments on a variety of standard and synthetic datasets demonstrate that the proposed persistence-based indicator outperforms the existing approaches, such as, gap-statistic method, $X$-means, $G$-means, $PG$-means, dip-means algorithms and information-theoretic method, in accurately identifying the clustering solutions with true number of clusters. Interestingly, our method can be explained in terms of the phase-transition phenomenon in the deterministic annealing algorithm, where the number of distinct cluster centers changes (bifurcates) with respect to an annealing parameter.

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