Novelty in Personalization

We all have the unfortunate  experience of being pigeon holed by Personalization and Recommendation engines. When recommendation are based on our past behavior and there is very little  opportunity to explore. But our past actions are not always good predictors for our future behavior.  At any given moment, our behavior is highly influence by our mood, fleeting thoughts and contextual surrounding. There are are several way to improve the solution e.g., by introducing novelty and diversity in the recommendation list. Even adding some items randomly to the recommendation list has been found to be effective.

I have recently added novelty in my open source Recommendation and Personalization engine sifarish.  In this post I will go over the solution as implemented in sifarish. We will start with some  some core concepts followed by the Hadoop Map reduce workflow for the implementation. I will cover diversity in a future post when it’s implemented.


Novelty has an inverse relationship with the exposure an user has to an item. It’s an indicator of how unfamiliar a particular item is to an user. Novelty can be defined with respect to a specific user’s exposure to an  item or with respect to the exposure the whole user population has to an item. We will be using the user specific  novelty definition. Although the solution discussed here can equally be applied novelty based on the whole user population.

Our solution consists of the following steps. Details on creating a recommendation list based on item to items collaborative filtering can be found in my earlier post.

  1. For any user and item, calculate a novelty score
  2. Take an weighted average of the predicted rating score and the novelty score to calculate a net score
  3. Create a recommendation list based on the descending order of the net score

Novelty Score

I have used two algorithms for computing the novelty score. With both of them, novelty score increases at an increasing rate, as the an user’s exposure to an item goes to zero. The first one has it’s grounding in information theory and is based on Self Information. Novelty is self information as defined below.

n(u,i) = -log(p(u,i)) where
n(u,i) = novelty (self information)  
p(u,i) = probability of exposure to an item i for an user u

In my earlier post, I discussed how to calculate implicit rating for an item based on an user’s level of engagement with that item. For a given user, from the histogram of implicit rating for items, we can easily calculate p(i)

The second algorithm is heuristic based and defined with a second degree polynomial as below

n(u,i) = k2 * r(u,i)2 + k1 * r(u.i) + k0 where
n(u,i) = novelty
r(u,i) = implicit or explicit rating of item i for user u

The three coefficients are found from the following conditions. The parameter n is user defined with a value less than 1.0. It dictates how far below the linear inverse line the polynomial lies, or in other words the degree of non linearity.

  1. When r(u,i) = rmax,  n(u,i) = 0 where rmax = maximum implicit rating
  2. When r(u,i) = 0,  n(u,i) = nmax where nmax = maximum novelty score
  3. When  r = rmax /2,  n(u,i) = n * rmax /2  where n = user defined parameter ( < 1.0)

Map Reduce Workflow

There are multiple Map Reduce jobs as listed below that are used to compute the final net rating score.

Input Map Reduce Output
User item implicit rating ItemEngagementDistr which converts implicit rating to rating distribution Estimated item rating distribution as (userID,itemID, rating, rating distibution)
Output of previous job IndividualNovelty which converts either rating or rating distribution to novelty Novelty as (userID,itemID, novelty)
Output of previous job and predicted rating Joiner which joins predicted rating and novelty for each user, item pair Predicted rating and novelty as (userID,itemID, predicted rating, novelty)
Output of previous job WeightedAverage which computes weighted average of predicted rating and novelty Net score as (userID,itemID, score)

The first MR job ItemEngagementDistr simply calculates a probability distribution from a a histogram.

The second MR job IndividualNovelty operates  on one of the two supported algorithms to calculate novelty as defined through the parameter novelty.gen.strategy. For self information based algorithm, the rating distribution is used. For polynomial based algorithm, the actual implicit rating value is used. This MR class is extended from another MR class called Transformer which allows transformation or suppression of fields in a record. Transformation logic can be provided as a plugin.

The third MR job Joiner simply  joins predicted rating and novelty keyed on (userID, itemID) with some caveat. When the novelty value is not available for an (userID, itemID) pair, the maximum novelty value is inserted. It covers for the case when an user has not engaged with an item at all, there is no implicit rating and hence no novelty score. This MR generally does inner join. However if the default value for a missing record is provided, it switches to the outer join mode.

The fourth MR job WeightedAverage  takes weighted average of predicted rating and novelty. The relative weights are defined through the parameter field.weights. One interesting aspect of this job is that as an option when the value of novelty is 0 the output  out can be suppressed for the record.

This features enables us to handle the scenario where an item will not be recommended, if it has been already consumed by the user. In an eCommerce setting, consumption corresponds to purchase and this feature is more relevant. We all had the annoying experience of being recommended something or similar to something we have purchased recently. Importance of this feature really depends on the domain. With media, an user may consume an item multiple times (e.g., listening to the same song multiple times) and this suppression may not be necessary.

Here is some sample of the final output, consisting of userID, itemID and score.


How Much Novelty

How much novelty should be injected into the mix. Honestly we don’t really know. As consumers interacting with web site, we are either in an exploratory mode, exploring things we have not been exposed to before or we are in a focused exploitative mode when armed with knowledge gained from exploration, we are going to choose something and consume it.

While in an exploratory mode, it’s beneficial to introduce more novelty while doing customization and recommendation for an user. On the other hand while in an exploitative goal driven mode, novelty should be suppressed.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to detect either of these modes. If we could glean this kind of latent information from click stream, the amount of novelty could be tuned to match user’s current mode of behavior.

Global Novelty

So far, we have used novelty of an item per user basis. We could have used aggregate as well. Global novelty for an item is defined over the whole user community

We have to replace r(u,i) which is the rating for an item i by an user u, with r(i), which is average rating of an item aggregated over all users.  This gets used for second degree polynomial based novelty estimation.

For self information based novelty estimation we use p(i), which is the probability that users have interacted with the  item i. It’s based on the number of users that have interacted with an item.

Sifarish supports global novelty. The net score based on predicted rating and global novelty could be computed by executing the following MR jobs

  1. Run Projection on rating data grouped by itemID
  2. Run GlobalNovelty on the output.
  3. Run Joiner to join rating and novelty data
  4. Run WeightedAverage for net score

Dissimilarity Based Novelty

So far we have based our novelty definition on whether an user has been exposed to an item. One issue with defining novelty based on discovery is that for those items not yet discovered the novelty score is at it’s maximum.

However, an item that we have not been exposed to before may be  very similar to an item that we have been exposed to before and hence it’s novelty score should  be low. The novelty score should depend on upon how dissimilar an item is  to the items that we have been exposed to.   This is where dissimilarity based novelty shines. It’s defined as below

n(u,i) = Σj((1 – sim(i,j)) * r(u.j)   where
n(u,i) = novelty of item i for user u
sim(i,j)=similarity between item i and j
r(u,j) = rating of item j by user u

The similarity sim(i,j) could be defined based on item correlation in social interaction context or physical attribute context.

Summing Up

With all the idiosyncrasies we have and the contextual environment we are in, it’s impossible for an algorithm to predict completely what’s in our mind. The algorithms discussed in this post are essentially steps towards improving the solution. This a good article on the topic of novelty and diversity.

To run the example please follow the steps under the section novelty in the tutorial document. if you have not run the tutorial before and don’t have predicted rating, then you have to start from the beginning.

For commercial support for this solution or other solutions in my github repositories, please talk to ThirdEye Data Science Services. Support is available for Hadoop or Spark deployment on cloud including installation, configuration and testing,


About Pranab

I am Pranab Ghosh, a software professional in the San Francisco Bay area. I manipulate bits and bytes for the good of living beings and the planet. I have worked with myriad of technologies and platforms in various business domains for early stage startups, large corporations and anything in between. I am an active blogger and open source project owner. I am passionate about technology and green and sustainable living. My technical interest areas are Big Data, Distributed Processing, NOSQL databases, Machine Learning and Programming languages. I am fascinated by problems that don't have neat closed form solution.
This entry was posted in Big Data, Data Mining, Data Science, Hadoop and Map Reduce, Personalization, Recommendation Engine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Novelty in Personalization

  1. Pingback: Positive Feedback Driven Recommendation Rank Reordering | Mawazo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s