# Creating Estimators in tf.contrib.learn

The tf.contrib.learn framework makes it easy to construct and train machine learning models via its high-level Estimator API. Estimator offers classes you can instantiate to quickly configure common model types such as regressors and classifiers:

But what if none of tf.contrib.learn's predefined model types meets your needs? Perhaps you need more granular control over model configuration, such as the ability to customize the loss function used for optimization, or specify different activation functions for each neural network layer. Or maybe you're implementing a ranking or recommendation system, and neither a classifier nor a regressor is appropriate for generating predictions.

This tutorial covers how to create your own Estimator using the building blocks provided in tf.contrib.learn, which will predict the ages of abalones based on their physical measurements. You'll learn how to do the following:

• Instantiate an Estimator
• Construct a custom model function
• Configure a neural network using tf.contrib.layers
• Choose an appropriate loss function from tf.losses
• Define a training op for your model
• Generate and return predictions

## Prerequisites

This tutorial assumes you already know tf.contrib.learn API basics, such as feature columns and fit() operations. If you've never used tf.contrib.learn before, or need a refresher, you should first review the following tutorials:

## An Abalone Age Predictor

It's possible to estimate the age of an abalone (sea snail) by the number of rings on its shell. However, because this task requires cutting, staining, and viewing the shell under a microscope, it's desirable to find other measurements that can predict age.

The Abalone Data Set contains the following feature data for abalone:

Feature Description
Length Length of abalone (in longest direction; in mm)
Diameter Diameter of abalone (measurement perpendicular to length; in mm)
Height Height of abalone (with its meat inside shell; in mm)
Whole Weight Weight of entire abalone (in grams)
Shucked Weight Weight of abalone meat only (in grams)
Viscera Weight Gut weight of abalone (in grams), after bleeding
Shell Weight Weight of dried abalone shell (in grams)

The label to predict is number of rings, as a proxy for abalone age.

“Abalone shell” (by Nicki Dugan Pogue, CC BY-SA 2.0)

## Setup

This tutorial uses three data sets. abalone_train.csv contains labeled training data comprising 3,320 examples. abalone_test.csv contains labeled test data for 850 examples. abalone_predict contains 7 examples on which to make predictions.

The following sections walk through writing the Estimator code step by step; the full, final code is available here.

To feed the abalone dataset into the model, you'll need to download and load the CSVs into TensorFlow Datasets. First, add some standard Python and TensorFlow imports, and set up FLAGS:

from __future__ import absolute_import
from __future__ import division
from __future__ import print_function

import argparse
import sys
import tempfile

# Import urllib
from six.moves import urllib

import numpy as np
import tensorflow as tf
from tensorflow.contrib.learn.python.learn.estimators import model_fn as model_fn_lib

FLAGS = None


Enable logging:

tf.logging.set_verbosity(tf.logging.INFO)


Then define a function to load the CSVs (either from files specified in command-line options, or downloaded from tensorflow.org):

def maybe_download(train_data, test_data, predict_data):
if train_data:
train_file_name = train_data
else:
train_file = tempfile.NamedTemporaryFile(delete=False)
urllib.request.urlretrieve(
train_file.name)
train_file_name = train_file.name
train_file.close()

if test_data:
test_file_name = test_data
else:
test_file = tempfile.NamedTemporaryFile(delete=False)
urllib.request.urlretrieve(
test_file_name = test_file.name
test_file.close()

if predict_data:
predict_file_name = predict_data
else:
predict_file = tempfile.NamedTemporaryFile(delete=False)
urllib.request.urlretrieve(
predict_file.name)
predict_file_name = predict_file.name
predict_file.close()

return train_file_name, test_file_name, predict_file_name


Finally, create main() and load the abalone CSVs into Datasets, defining flags to allow users to optionally specify CSV files for training, test, and prediction datasets via the command line (by default, files will be downloaded from tensorflow.org):

def main(unused_argv):
FLAGS.train_data, FLAGS.test_data, FLAGS.predict_data)

# Training examples
filename=abalone_train, target_dtype=np.int, features_dtype=np.float64)

# Test examples
filename=abalone_test, target_dtype=np.int, features_dtype=np.float64)

# Set of 7 examples for which to predict abalone ages
filename=abalone_predict, target_dtype=np.int, features_dtype=np.float64)

if __name__ == "__main__":
parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
parser.register("type", "bool", lambda v: v.lower() == "true")
"--train_data", type=str, default="", help="Path to the training data.")
"--test_data", type=str, default="", help="Path to the test data.")
"--predict_data",
type=str,
default="",
help="Path to the prediction data.")
FLAGS, unparsed = parser.parse_known_args()
tf.app.run(main=main, argv=[sys.argv[0]] + unparsed)


## Instantiating an Estimator

When defining a model using one of tf.contrib.learn's provided classes, such as DNNClassifier, you supply all the configuration parameters right in the constructor, e.g.:

my_nn = tf.contrib.learn.DNNClassifier(feature_columns=[age, height, weight],
hidden_units=[10, 10, 10],
activation_fn=tf.nn.relu,
dropout=0.2,
n_classes=3,


You don't need to write any further code to instruct TensorFlow how to train the model, calculate loss, or return predictions; that logic is already baked into the DNNClassifier.

By contrast, when you're creating your own estimator from scratch, the constructor accepts just two high-level parameters for model configuration, model_fn and params:

nn = tf.contrib.learn.Estimator(
model_fn=model_fn, params=model_params)

• model_fn: A function object that contains all the aforementioned logic to support training, evaluation, and prediction. You are responsible for implementing that functionality. The next section, Constructing the model_fn covers creating a model function in detail.

• params: An optional dict of hyperparameters (e.g., learning rate, dropout) that will be passed into the model_fn.

NOTE: Just like tf.contrib.learn's predefined regressors and classifiers, the Estimator initializer also accepts the general configuration arguments model_dir and config.

For the abalone age predictor, the model will accept one hyperparameter: learning rate. Define LEARNING_RATE as a constant at the beginning of your code (highlighted in bold below), right after the logging configuration:

tf.logging.set_verbosity(tf.logging.INFO)

# Learning rate for the model
LEARNING_RATE = 0.001

NOTE: Here, LEARNING_RATE is set to 0.001, but you can tune this value as needed to achieve the best results during model training.

Then, add the following code to main(), which creates the dict model_params containing the learning rate and instantiates the Estimator:

# Set model params
model_params = {"learning_rate": LEARNING_RATE}

# Instantiate Estimator
nn = tf.contrib.learn.Estimator(model_fn=model_fn, params=model_params)


## Constructing the model_fn

The basic skeleton for an Estimator API model function looks like this:

def model_fn(features, targets, mode, params):
# Logic to do the following:
# 1. Configure the model via TensorFlow operations
# 2. Define the loss function for training/evaluation
# 3. Define the training operation/optimizer
# 4. Generate predictions
# 5. Return predictions/loss/train_op/eval_metric_ops in ModelFnOps object
return ModelFnOps(mode, predictions, loss, train_op, eval_metric_ops)


The model_fn must accept three arguments:

• features: A dict containing the features passed to the model via fit(), evaluate(), or predict().
• targets: A Tensor containing the labels passed to the model via fit(), evaluate(), or predict(). Will be empty for predict() calls, as these are the values the model will infer.
• mode: One of the following tf.contrib.learn.ModeKeys string values indicating the context in which the model_fn was invoked:
• tf.contrib.learn.ModeKeys.TRAIN The model_fn was invoked in training mode—e.g., via a fit() call.
• tf.contrib.learn.ModeKeys.EVAL. The model_fn was invoked in evaluation mode—e.g., via an evaluate() call.
• tf.contrib.learn.ModeKeys.INFER. The model_fn was invoked in inference mode—e.g., via a predict() call.

model_fn may also accept a params argument containing a dict of hyperparameters used for training (as shown in the skeleton above).

The body of the function perfoms the following tasks (described in detail in the sections that follow):

• Configuring the model—here, for the abalone predictor, this will be a neural network.
• Defining the loss function used to calculate how closely the model's predictions match the target values.
• Defining the training operation that specifies the optimizer algorithm to minimize the loss values calculated by the loss function.

The model_fn must return a tf.contrib.learn.ModelFnOps object, which contains the following values:

• mode (required). The mode in which the model was run. Typically, you will return the mode argument of the model_fn here.

• predictions (required in INFER and EVAL modes). A dict that maps key names of your choice to Tensors containing the predictions from the model, e.g.:

python predictions = {"results": tensor_of_predictions}

In INFER mode, the dict that you return in ModelFnOps will then be returned by predict(), so you can construct it in the format in which you'd like to consume it.

In EVAL mode, the dict is used by metric functions to compute metrics.

• loss (required in EVAL and TRAIN mode). A Tensor containing a scalar loss value: the output of the model's loss function (discussed in more depth later in Defining loss for the model) calculated over all the input examples. This is used in TRAIN mode for error handling and logging, and is automatically included as a metric in EVAL mode.

• train_op (required only in TRAIN mode). An Op that runs one step of training.

• eval_metric_ops (optional). A dict of name/value pairs specifying the metrics that will be calculated when the model runs in EVAL mode. The name is a label of your choice for the metric, and the value is the result of your metric calculation. The tf.metrics module provides predefined functions for a variety of common metrics. The following eval_metric_ops contains an "accuracy" metric calculated using tf.metrics.accuracy:

python eval_metric_ops = { "accuracy": tf.metrics.accuracy(labels, predictions) }

If you do not specify eval_metric_ops, only loss will be calculated during evaluation.

### Configuring a neural network with tf.contrib.layers

Constructing a neural network entails creating and connecting the input layer, the hidden layers, and the output layer.

The input layer is a series of nodes (one for each feature in the model) that will accept the feature data that is passed to the model_fn in the features argument. If features contains an n-dimenional Tensor with all your feature data (which is the case if x and y Datasets are passed to fit(), evaluate(), and predict() directly), then it can serve as the input layer. If features contains a dict of feature columns passed to the model via an input function, you can convert it to an input-layer Tensor with the tf.contrib.layers.input_from_feature_columns function in tf.contrib.layers.

input_layer = tf.contrib.layers.input_from_feature_columns(
columns_to_tensors=features, feature_columns=[age, height, weight])


As shown above, input_from_feature_columns() takes two required arguments:

• columns_to_tensors. A mapping of the model's FeatureColumns to the Tensors containing the corresponding feature data. This is exactly what is passed to the model_fn in the features argument.
• feature_columns. A list of all the FeatureColumns in the model—age, height, and weight in the above example.

The input layer of the neural network then must be connected to one or more hidden layers via an activation function that performs a nonlinear transformation on the data from the previous layer. The last hidden layer is then connected to the output layer, the final layer in the model. tf.contrib.layers provides the following convenience functions for constructing fully connected layers:

• relu(inputs, num_outputs). Create a layer of num_outputs nodes fully connected to the previous layer inputs with a ReLU activation function (tf.nn.relu):

python hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(inputs=input_layer, num_outputs=10)

• relu6(inputs, num_outputs). Create a layer of num_outputs nodes fully connected to the previous layer hidden_layer with a ReLU 6 activation function (tf.nn.relu6):

python second_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu6(inputs=hidden_layer, num_outputs=20)

• linear(inputs, num_outputs). Create a layer of num_outputs nodes fully connected to the previous layer second_hidden_layer with no activation function, just a linear transformation:

python output_layer = tf.contrib.layers.linear(inputs=second_hidden_layer, num_outputs=3)

All these functions are partials of the more general tf.contrib.layers.fully_connected function, which can be used to add fully connected layers with other activation functions, e.g.:

output_layer = tf.contrib.layers.fully_connected(inputs=second_hidden_layer,
num_outputs=10,
activation_fn=tf.sigmoid)


The above code creates the neural network layer output_layer, which is fully connected to second_hidden_layer with a sigmoid activation function (tf.sigmoid). For a list of predefined activation functions available in TensorFlow, see the API docs.

Putting it all together, the following code constructs a full neural network for the abalone predictor, and captures its predictions:

def model_fn(features, targets, mode, params):
"""Model function for Estimator."""

# Connect the first hidden layer to input layer
# (features) with relu activation
first_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(features, 10)

# Connect the second hidden layer to first hidden layer with relu
second_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(first_hidden_layer, 10)

# Connect the output layer to second hidden layer (no activation fn)
output_layer = tf.contrib.layers.linear(second_hidden_layer, 1)

# Reshape output layer to 1-dim Tensor to return predictions
predictions = tf.reshape(output_layer, [-1])
predictions_dict = {"ages": predictions}
...


Here, because you'll be passing the abalone Datasets directly to fit(), evaluate(), and predict() via x and y arguments, the input layer is the features Tensor passed to the model_fn. The network contains two hidden layers, each with 10 nodes and a ReLU activation function. The output layer contains no activation function, and is tf.reshape to a one-dimensional tensor to capture the model's predictions, which are stored in predictions_dict.

### Defining loss for the model

The ModelFnOps returned by the model_fn must contain loss: a Tensor representing the loss value, which quantifies how well the model's predictions reflect the target values during training and evaluation runs. The tf.losses module provides convenience functions for calculating loss using a variety of metrics, including:

• absolute_difference(predictions, targets). Calculates loss using the absolute-difference formula (also known as L1 loss).

• log_loss(predictions, targets). Calculates loss using the logistic loss forumula (typically used in logistic regression).

• mean_squared_error(predictions, targets). Calculates loss using the mean squared error (MSE; also known as L2 loss).

The following example adds a definition for loss to the abalone model_fn using mean_squared_error() (in bold):

def model_fn(features, targets, mode, params):
"""Model function for Estimator."""

# Connect the first hidden layer to input layer
# (features) with relu activation
first_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(features, 10)

# Connect the second hidden layer to first hidden layer with relu
second_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(first_hidden_layer, 10)

# Connect the output layer to second hidden layer (no activation fn)
output_layer = tf.contrib.layers.linear(second_hidden_layer, 1)

# Reshape output layer to 1-dim Tensor to return predictions
predictions = tf.reshape(output_layer, [-1])
predictions_dict = {"ages": predictions}

# Calculate loss using mean squared error
loss = tf.losses.mean_squared_error(targets, predictions)
...

See the API guide for a full list of loss functions and more details on supported arguments and usage.

Supplementary metrics for evaluation can be added to an eval_metric_ops dict. The following code defines an rmse metric, which calculates the root mean squared error for the model predictions. Note that the targets tensor is cast to a float64 type to match the data type of the predictions tensor, which will contain real values:

eval_metric_ops = {
"rmse": tf.metrics.root_mean_squared_error(
tf.cast(targets, tf.float64), predictions)
}


### Defining the training op for the model

The training op defines the optimization algorithm TensorFlow will use when fitting the model to the training data. Typically when training, the goal is to minimize loss. The tf.contrib.layers API provides the function optimize_loss, which returns a training op that will do just that. optimize_loss has four required arguments:

NOTE: The optimize_loss function supports additional optional arguments to further configure the optimizer, such as for implementing decay. See the API docs for more info.

The following code defines a training op for the abalone model_fn using the loss value calculated in Defining Loss for the Model, the learning rate passed to the function in params, and the SGD optimizer. For global_step, the convenience function tf.train.get_global_step in tf.contrib.framework takes care of generating an integer variable:

train_op = tf.contrib.layers.optimize_loss(
loss=loss,
global_step=tf.contrib.framework.get_global_step(),
learning_rate=params["learning_rate"],
optimizer="SGD")


### The complete abalone model_fn

Here's the final, complete model_fn for the abalone age predictor. The following code configures the neural network; defines loss and the training op; and returns a ModelFnOps object containing mode, predictions_dict, loss, and train_op:

def model_fn(features, targets, mode, params):
"""Model function for Estimator."""

# Connect the first hidden layer to input layer
# (features) with relu activation
first_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(features, 10)

# Connect the second hidden layer to first hidden layer with relu
second_hidden_layer = tf.contrib.layers.relu(first_hidden_layer, 10)

# Connect the output layer to second hidden layer (no activation fn)
output_layer = tf.contrib.layers.linear(second_hidden_layer, 1)

# Reshape output layer to 1-dim Tensor to return predictions
predictions = tf.reshape(output_layer, [-1])
predictions_dict = {"ages": predictions}

# Calculate loss using mean squared error
loss = tf.losses.mean_squared_error(targets, predictions)

# Calculate root mean squared error as additional eval metric
eval_metric_ops = {
"rmse":
tf.metrics.root_mean_squared_error(
tf.cast(targets, tf.float64), predictions)
}

train_op = tf.contrib.layers.optimize_loss(
loss=loss,
global_step=tf.contrib.framework.get_global_step(),
learning_rate=params["learning_rate"],
optimizer="SGD")

return model_fn_lib.ModelFnOps(
mode=mode,
predictions=predictions_dict,
loss=loss,
train_op=train_op,
eval_metric_ops=eval_metric_ops)


## Running the Abalone Model

You've instantiated an Estimator for the abalone predictor and defined its behavior in model_fn; all that's left to do is train, evaluate, and make predictions.

Add the following code to the end of main() to fit the neural network to the training data and evaluate accuracy:

# Fit
nn.fit(x=training_set.data, y=training_set.target, steps=5000)

# Score accuracy
ev = nn.evaluate(x=test_set.data, y=test_set.target, steps=1)
print("Loss: %s" % ev["loss"])
print("Root Mean Squared Error: %s" % ev["rmse"])


Then run the code. You should see output like the following:

...
INFO:tensorflow:loss = 4.86658, step = 4701
INFO:tensorflow:loss = 4.86191, step = 4801
INFO:tensorflow:loss = 4.85788, step = 4901
...
INFO:tensorflow:Saving evaluation summary for 5000 step: loss = 5.581
Loss: 5.581


The loss score reported is the mean squared error returned from the model_fn when run on the ABALONE_TEST data set.

To predict ages for the ABALONE_PREDICT data set, add the following to main():

# Print out predictions
predictions = nn.predict(x=prediction_set.data, as_iterable=True)
for i, p in enumerate(predictions):
print("Prediction %s: %s" % (i + 1, p["ages"]))


Here, the predict() function returns results in predictions as an iterable. The for loop enumerates and prints out the results. Rerun the code, and you should see output similar to the following:

...
Prediction 1: 4.92229
Prediction 2: 10.3225
Prediction 3: 7.384
Prediction 4: 10.6264
Prediction 5: 11.0862
Prediction 6: 9.39239
Prediction 7: 11.1289


Congrats! You've successfully built a tf.contrib.learn Estimator from scratch. For additional reference materials on building Estimators, see the following sections of the API guides: