Handling categorical variables forms an essential component of a machine learning pipeline. While machine learning algorithms can handle the numerical variables, the same is not true for their categorical counterparts. Although there are algorithms like LightGBM and Catboost that can inherently handle the categorical variables, this isn’t the case with most other algorithms. You have to first convert these categorical variables into numerical quantities to be fed into the machine learning algorithms. There are many ways to encode categorical variables such as one-hot encoding, ordinal encoding and label encoding but in this article, I’ll look at Pandas’ dummy variable encoding and expose its potential limitations.  

Dummy Variable Traps to Avoid in Pandas

  1. Multicollinearity
  2. Mismatched columns between train and data sets


 What Are Categorical Variables? 

First things first, categorical variables are variables that have value ranges over categories, such as gender, hair color, ethnicity or zip codes. The sum of two zip codes is not meaningful. Similarly, nobody is asking for the average of a list of zip codes; that doesn’t make sense. Instead, categorical variables can be divided into two subcategories based on the kind of elements they group:

Categorical variables | Image by author
  • Nominal variables are those whose categories do not have a natural order or ranking. For example, we could use 1 for the red color and 2 for blue. But these numbers don’t have a mathematical meaning. That is, we can’t add them together or take the average. Examples that fit in this category include gender, postal codes and hair color.
  • Ordinal variables have an inherent order which is somehow significant. An example would be tracking student grades where Grade 1 > Grade 2 > Grade 3. Another example would be the socio-economic status of people where “high income” > “low income”.

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Encoding Categorical Variables With pandas.get_dummies()

Now that we know what categorical variables are, it’s clear we cannot use them directly in machine learning models. They have to be converted into meaningful numerical representations; this process is called encoding. There are a lot of techniques for encoding categorical variables, but we’ll look at the one provided by the Pandas library called get_dummies().

As the name suggests, the pandas.get_dummies() function converts categorical variables into dummy or indicator variables. Let’s see it working through an elementary example. We first define a hypothetical data set consisting of employee attributes at a company and use it to predict employees’ salaries.

df = pd.DataFrame({
   'Gender' : ['Female', 'Male', 'Male', 'Male', 'Male', 'Female', 'Male', 'Male','Male', 'Female','Male', 'Female'],
   'Age' : [41, 49, 37, 33, 27, 32, 59, 30, 38, 36, 35, 29],
   'EducationField': ['Life Sciences', 'Engineering', 'Life Sciences', 'Life Sciences', 'Medical', 'Life Sciences', 'Life Sciences', 'Life Sciences', 'Engineering', 'Medical', 'Life Sciences', 'Life Sciences'],
   'MonthlyIncome': [5993, 5130, 2090, 2909, 3468, 3068, 2670, 2693, 9526, 5237, 2426, 4193]

 Our data set looks like this:


We can see that there are two categorical columns in the above data set (i.e., Gender and EducationField. Let’s encode them into numerical quantities using pandas.get_dummies() which returns a dummy-encoded data frame.


The column Gender gets converted into two columns: Gender_Female and Gender_Male having values as either zero or one. For instance, Gender_Female has a value = 1 at places where the concerned employee is female and value = 0 when not. The inverse is true for the column Gender_Male.

Dummy encoding Gender variable | Image by author

Similarly, the column EducationField also gets separated into three different columns based on the field of education. Things are pretty self-explanatory up until now. However, the issue begins when we use this encoded data set to train a machine learning model.

Dummy Variables and One-Hot Encoding


The Dummy Variable Trap

Let’s say we want to use the given data to build a machine learning model that can predict employees’ monthly salaries. This is a classic example of a regression problem where the target variable is MonthlyIncome. If we were to use pandas.get_dummies() to encode the categorical variables, the following issues could arise.


Trap 1: Multicollinearity

Multicollinearity depicted through Venn diagrams | Image by author
This diagram explains multicollinearity very intuitively. Thanks to Karen Grace-Martin for explaining the concept in such a lucid manner.

One of the assumptions of a regression model is that the observations must be independent of each other. Multicollinearity occurs when independent variables in a regression model are correlated. So why is correlation a problem? To help you understand the concept in detail and avoid reinventing the wheel, I’ll point you to a great piece by Jim Frost, where he explains it very succinctly. As Frost states,  “a key goal of regression analysis is to isolate the relationship between each independent variable and the dependent variable. The interpretation of a regression coefficient is that it represents the mean change in the dependent variable for each one unit change in an independent variable when you hold all of the other independent variables constant.”

If all the variables are correlated, it will become difficult for the model to tell how strongly a particular variable affects the target since all the variables are related. In such a case, the coefficient of a regression model will not convey the correct information.

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Multicollinearity With pandas.get_dummies

Consider the employee example above. Let’s isolate the Gender column from the data set and encode it.If we look closely, Gender_Female and Gender_Male columns are multicollinear. This is because a value of 1 in one column automatically implies 0 in the other. We call this issue a dummy variable trap, which we  represent as:

Gender_Female = 1 - Gender_Male


Solution: Drop the First Column

Multicollinearity is undesirable, and every time we encode variables with pandas.get_dummies(), we’ll encounter this issue. One way to overcome this problem is by dropping one of the generated columns. So, we can drop either Gender_Female or Gender_Malewithout potentially losing any information. Fortunately, pandas.get_dummies() has a parameter called drop_first which, when set to True, does precisely that.

pd.get_dummies(df, drop_first=True

We’ve resolved multicollinearity, but another issue lurks when we use dummy_encoding.

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Trap 2: Mismatched Columns Between Train and Test Sets

To train a model with the given employee data, we’ll first split the data set into train and test sets, keeping the test set aside so our model never sees it.

from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split
X = df.drop('MonthlyIncome', axis=1)
y = df['MonthlyIncome']
X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(X,y, test_size=0.2, random_state=1)

The next step is to encode the categorical variables in the training set and the test set.


Encoding the Training Set


As expected, both the Gender and the EducationField attributes have been encoded into numerical quantities. Now we’ll apply the same process to the test data set.


Encoding the Test Set

Image by author

Wait! There is a column mismatch in the training and test set. This means the number of columns in the training set is not equal to the ones in the test set, and this will introduce an error in the modeling process.


Solution 1: Handle Unknown by Using .reindex and .fillna()

One way of addressing this categorical mismatch is to save the columns obtained after dummy encoding the training set in a list. Then, encode the test set as usual and use the columns of the encoded training set to align both the datas set. Let’s understand it through code:

# Dummy encoding Training set
X_train_encoded = pd.get_dummies(X_train)
# Saving the columns in a list
cols = X_train_encoded.columns.tolist()
# Viewing the first three rows of the encoded dataframe
Image by author

Now, we’ll encode the test set followed by realigning the training and test columns and filling in all missing values with zero.

X_test_encoded = pd.get_dummies(X_test)
X_test_encoded = X_test_encoded.reindex(columns=cols).fillna(0)
Image by author

As you can see, both data sets now have the same number of columns.


Solution 2: Use One-Hot Encoding

Another more preferable solution is to use sklearn.preprocessing.OneHotEncoder(). Additionally, one can use handle_unknown=“ignore” to solve the potential issues due to rare categories.

#One hot encoding the categorical columns in training set
from sklearn.preprocessing import OneHotEncoder
ohe = OneHotEncoder(sparse=False, handle_unknown='ignore')
train_enc = ohe.fit_transform(X_train[['Gender','EducationField']])
#Converting back to a dataframe
pd.DataFrame(train_enc, columns=ohe.get_feature_names())[:3]
# Transforming the test set
test_enc = ohe.fit_transform(X_test[['Gender','EducationField']])
#Converting back to a dataframe

Note, you can also drop one of the categories per feature in one- hot encoder by setting the parameter drop=’if_binary’. Refer to the documentation for more details.

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The Takeaway

This article looked at how Pandas can be used to encode categorical variables and the common pitfalls associated with it. We also looked in detail at the plausible solutions to avoid those problems. I hope this article has given you some insight into what a dummy variable trap is and how you can avoid it. The two articles referenced in this post are great references, especially if you want to go deeper into issues related to multicollinearity.     

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