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How to train Boosted Trees models in TensorFlow

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This tutorial is an end-to-end walkthrough of training a Gradient Boosting model using decision trees with the tf.estimator API. Boosted Trees models are among the most popular and effective machine learning approaches for both regression and classification. It is an ensemble technique that combines the predictions from several (think 10s, 100s or even 1000s) tree models.

Boosted Trees models are popular with many machine learning practioners as they can achieve impressive performance with minimal hyperparameter tuning.

Load the titanic dataset

You will be using the titanic dataset, where the (rather morbid) goal is to predict passenger survival, given characteristics such as gender, age, class, etc.

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from __future__ import absolute_import, division, print_function

import numpy as np
import pandas as pd
import tensorflow as tf



# Load dataset.
dftrain = pd.read_csv('')
dfeval = pd.read_csv('')
y_train = dftrain.pop('survived')
y_eval = dfeval.pop('survived')

The dataset consists of a training set and an evaluation set:

  • dftrain and y_train are the training set—the data the model uses to learn.
  • The model is tested against the eval set, dfeval, and y_eval.

For training you will use the following features:

Feature Name Description
sex Gender of passenger
age Age of passenger
n_siblings_spouses # siblings and partners aboard
parch # of parents and children aboard
fare Fare passenger paid.
class Passenger's class on ship
deck Which deck passenger was on
embark_town Which town passenger embarked from
alone If passenger was alone

Explore the data

Let's first preview some of the data and create summary statistics on the training set.

sex age n_siblings_spouses parch fare class deck embark_town alone
0 male 22.0 1 0 7.2500 Third unknown Southampton n
1 female 38.0 1 0 71.2833 First C Cherbourg n
2 female 26.0 0 0 7.9250 Third unknown Southampton y
3 female 35.0 1 0 53.1000 First C Southampton n
4 male 28.0 0 0 8.4583 Third unknown Queenstown y
age n_siblings_spouses parch fare
count 627.000000 627.000000 627.000000 627.000000
mean 29.631308 0.545455 0.379585 34.385399
std 12.511818 1.151090 0.792999 54.597730
min 0.750000 0.000000 0.000000 0.000000
25% 23.000000 0.000000 0.000000 7.895800
50% 28.000000 0.000000 0.000000 15.045800
75% 35.000000 1.000000 0.000000 31.387500
max 80.000000 8.000000 5.000000 512.329200

There are 627 and 264 examples in the training and evaluation sets, respectively.

dftrain.shape[0], dfeval.shape[0]
(627, 264)

The majority of passengers are in their 20's and 30's.



There are approximately twice as male passengers as female passengers aboard.'barh');


The majority of passengers were in the "third" class.



Most passengers embarked from Southampton.



Females have a much higher chance of surviving vs. males. This will clearly be a predictive feature for the model.

ax = (pd.concat([dftrain, y_train], axis=1)\
ax.set_xlabel('% survive');


Create feature columns and input functions

The Gradient Boosting estimator can utilize both numeric and categorical features. Feature columns work with all TensorFlow estimators and their purpose is to define the features used for modeling. Additionally they provide some feature engineering capabilities like one-hot-encoding, normalization, and bucketization. In this tutorial, the fields in CATEGORICAL_COLUMNS are transformed from categorical columns to one-hot-encoded columns (indicator column):

fc = tf.feature_column
CATEGORICAL_COLUMNS = ['sex', 'n_siblings_spouses', 'parch', 'class', 'deck', 
                       'embark_town', 'alone']
NUMERIC_COLUMNS = ['age', 'fare']
def one_hot_cat_column(feature_name, vocab):
  return fc.indicator_column(
feature_columns = []
for feature_name in CATEGORICAL_COLUMNS:
  # Need to one-hot encode categorical features.
  vocabulary = dftrain[feature_name].unique()
  feature_columns.append(one_hot_cat_column(feature_name, vocabulary))
for feature_name in NUMERIC_COLUMNS:

You can view the transformation that a feature column produces. For example, here is the output when using the indicator_column on a single example:

example = dftrain.head(1)
class_fc = one_hot_cat_column('class', ('First', 'Second', 'Third'))
print('Feature value: "{}"'.format(example['class'].iloc[0]))
print('One-hot encoded: ', fc.input_layer(dict(example), [class_fc]).numpy())
Feature value: "Third"
One-hot encoded:  [[0. 0. 1.]]

Additionally, you can view all of the feature column transformations together:

fc.input_layer(dict(example), feature_columns).numpy()
array([[22.  ,  1.  ,  0.  ,  1.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  1.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,
         0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  1.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,
         7.25,  1.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  1.  ,
         0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  0.  ,  1.  ,  0.  ]], dtype=float32)

Next you need to create the input functions. These will specify how data will be read into our model for both training and inference. You will use the from_tensor_slices method in the API to read in data directly from Pandas. This is suitable for smaller, in-memory datasets. For larger datasets, the API supports a variety of file formats (including csv) so that you can process datasets that do not fit in memory.

# Use entire batch since this is such a small dataset.
NUM_EXAMPLES = len(y_train)

def make_input_fn(X, y, n_epochs=None, shuffle=True):
  def input_fn():
    dataset =, y))
    if shuffle:
      dataset = dataset.shuffle(NUM_EXAMPLES)
    # For training, cycle thru dataset as many times as need (n_epochs=None).    
    dataset = dataset.repeat(n_epochs)  
    # In memory training doesn't use batching.
    dataset = dataset.batch(NUM_EXAMPLES)
    return dataset
  return input_fn

# Training and evaluation input functions.
train_input_fn = make_input_fn(dftrain, y_train)
eval_input_fn = make_input_fn(dfeval, y_eval, shuffle=False, n_epochs=1)

Train and evaluate the model

Below you will do the following steps:

  1. Initialize the model, specifying the features and hyperparameters.
  2. Feed the training data to the model using the train_input_fn and train the model using the train function.
  3. You will assess model performance using the evaluation set—in this example, the dfeval DataFrame. You will verify that the predictions match the labels from the y_eval array.

Before training a Boosted Trees model, let's first train a linear classifier (logistic regression model). It is best practice to start with simpler model to establish a benchmark.

linear_est = tf.estimator.LinearClassifier(feature_columns)

# Train model.
linear_est.train(train_input_fn, max_steps=100)

# Evaluation.
results = linear_est.evaluate(eval_input_fn)
print('Accuracy : ', results['accuracy'])
print('Dummy model: ', results['accuracy_baseline'])
Accuracy :  0.78409094
Dummy model:  0.625

Next let's train a Boosted Trees model. For boosted trees, regression (BoostedTreesRegressor) and classification (BoostedTreesClassifier) are supported, along with using any twice differentiable custom loss (BoostedTreesEstimator). Since the goal is to predict a class - survive or not survive, you will use the BoostedTreesClassifier.

# Since data fits into memory, use entire dataset per layer. It will be faster.
# Above one batch is defined as the entire dataset. 
n_batches = 1
est = tf.estimator.BoostedTreesClassifier(feature_columns,

# The model will stop training once the specified number of trees is built, not 
# based on the number of steps.
est.train(train_input_fn, max_steps=100)

# Eval.
results = est.evaluate(eval_input_fn)
print('Accuracy : ', results['accuracy'])
print('Dummy model: ', results['accuracy_baseline'])
Accuracy :  0.82575756
Dummy model:  0.625

For performance reasons, when your data fits in memory, it is recommended to use the boosted_trees_classifier_train_in_memory function. However if training time is not of a concern or if you have a very large dataset and want to do distributed training, use the tf.estimator.BoostedTrees API shown above.

When using this method, you should not batch your input data, as the method operates on the entire dataset.

def make_inmemory_train_input_fn(X, y):
  def input_fn():
    return dict(X), y
  return input_fn

train_input_fn = make_inmemory_train_input_fn(dftrain, y_train)
eval_input_fn = make_input_fn(dfeval, y_eval, shuffle=False, n_epochs=1)
est = tf.contrib.estimator.boosted_trees_classifier_train_in_memory(

WARNING: The TensorFlow contrib module will not be included in TensorFlow 2.0.
For more information, please see:
If you depend on functionality not listed there, please file an issue.


Now you can use the train model to make predictions on a passenger from the evaluation set. TensorFlow models are optimized to make predictions on a batch, or collection, of examples at once. Earlier, the eval_input_fn is defined using the entire evaluation set.

pred_dicts = list(est.predict(eval_input_fn))
probs = pd.Series([pred['probabilities'][1] for pred in pred_dicts])

probs.plot(kind='hist', bins=20, title='predicted probabilities');


Finally you can also look at the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) of the results, which will give us a better idea of the tradeoff between the true positive rate and false positive rate.

from sklearn.metrics import roc_curve
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt

fpr, tpr, _ = roc_curve(y_eval, probs)
plt.plot(fpr, tpr)
plt.title('ROC curve')
plt.xlabel('false positive rate')
plt.ylabel('true positive rate')