Rough guide to Intel's Spark CRF library

Spark includes a machine-learning library implementing a number of useful statistical techniques, but one it does not include is Conditional Random Fields, which are a popular choice for classifying tokens in a sequence (I think they’re probably best known as a technique for part-of-speech tagging, but I’m interested in using them to classify paragraphs in documents based on their semantic role). There is a Spark-based CRF library, though, which is part of Intel’s IMLLIB. Unfortunately, it’s not very well documented, so I’ve spent the past couple of days figuring out how to use it, which I thought I’d document here in case it’s of any use to anyone else (even if that other person is just me in a few weeks time).

The library has two primary entry points: CRF.train(templates, sequences), a method on the CRF object which takes an array of features templates and an RDD of Sequences (which must have labels already attached), returning a CRFModel; and the predict(sequences) method on this CRFModel instance, which takes an RDD of Sequences and produces another RDD of Sequences, this time with predicted labels attached to each token. The main issue I had in figuring out how to use the library was working out what format it expected for sequences, tokens and, especially, feature templates.

Sequences of Tokens

CRF models are used to classify tokens within sequences, so it makes sense that the primary data types used to interface with the CRF library are Sequence and Token. Sequence is mostly just a case class that wraps an array of Tokens (it also includes some more complicated functionality to deal with multiple different classifications, for instance if you want to use your model to get the five most probably classifications, rather than just the top one, but I haven’t used that functionality). A Token is an array of Strings, each string being one attribute of the token, along with another String which is the label assigned to that token; if no label is assigned, the label field should be set to null.

Feature templates

The feature templates are a bit more complicated, in part because of the (to my simple mind, anyway) slightly more complicated nature of CRF features. In a CRF model, a feature isn’t just an attribute of a token - rather, a feature can depend on both attributes or classifications of other tokens in the sequence. So, for example, ‘was the previous paragraph bold’ could be a feature, as could ‘what was the previous paragraph classified as’, or ‘what was the previous paragraph classified as, and is this paragraph bold’. The first of these is called a unigram feature, because the classification of a token does not depend on the classification of any other token, while the latter two are bigram features, because they specify a relationship between the classification of two tokens. Both of these bigram features only refer to the classification of the previous token: general CRF models allow bigram features to refer to the classification of any other token in the sequence, but IMLLIB’s CRF engine only allows bigram features that relate adjacent tokens (I believe such a model is called a ‘linear chain CRF’).

So, tokens are sequences of attributes, while features are specified in terms of an attribute and the relative position of the token that has that attribute (and, optionally, the classification of the previous token). These are specified using feature templates, for which IMLLIB inherits CRF++’s rather obscure syntax. You supply the feature templates as an array of strings, where each string is one template, having the following format:

IMLLIB parses these tokens in a very simple way, making much use of hard-coded indexes and with very little validation, so it’s important to make sure that you are providing strings that exactly match this format (with, for example, no whitespace around the brackets or between the two numbers). For the features specified above, the feature templates would be something like (assuming ‘is bold’ is attribute 10 in our attributes array):

Generating feature templates

Rather than using this rather obscure syntax directly, I’ve been generating my feature templates and attribute arrays from code. I have a very simple model, where every attribute is only used in one feature, so it’s easy to map a sequence of feature specifications both to a sequence of strings representing these attributes. I represent tokens as a case class, like:

case class Paragraph(
  isBold: Boolean,
  fontSize: Int

and feature templates as a sequence, where each template knows how to extract the relevant attribute:

trait FeatureTemplate[A] {
  // Extract the relevant attribute from the token model
  def extractor: A => Any
  // Specifies the relative position of the token to consult
  def relative: Int
case class Unigram[A](extractor: A => Any, relative: Int = 0)
case class Bigram[A](extractor: A => Any, relative: Int = 0)

object Features {
  val template = Seq(

Because, in my model, each attribute is used in just one feature, I can generate attribute arrays where the index of an attribute corresponds to the index of the feature in the sequence of feature templates, like so:

def tokensAsStrings[A](templates: Seq[FeatureTemplate[A]], 
                        tokens: Seq[A]):
    Seq[Array[String]] = { { token => { template =>

and then generate feature templates which use indexes corresponding to these attribute arrays (this example uses a tag method on the FeatureTemplate trait which supplies U for unigram features and B for bigrams):

def templatesAsStrings[A](templates: Seq[FeatureTemplate[A]]): 
    Array[String] = { {
    case (template, index) =>

This generates a list of attributes from the list of feature templates, and produces an attribute array which ensures that the index of an attribute in this array is the same as the index of the feature template in the list of feature templates. If any attribute were used in more than one feature template, this wouldn’t work - you would need a separate list of attributes and feature templates, and some way of relating the two. I think this could be automatically generated with some kind of metaprogramming, but I haven’t looked into that. For my needs, this simple method suffices.