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Strategies for Debugging Machine Learning Models

January 11, 2024
min read

In any system or infrastructure, a simple bug can create huge issues. As per a report by CISQ in 2020, the cost of fixing bugs in software in the US alone was estimated at around $607 billion. Imagine this globally, with the increasing use of digital technologies since then.

Even a minute error or bug can cause massive disruption for ML models and systems. If a bug is detected in an ML model, there needs to be timely intervention and resolution. This is where the ML model debugging process comes into play.

This article will explore the ML model debugging strategies and the ideal tools to help you.

Understanding Model Debugging

ML model debugging is a meticulous process that involves identifying and resolving issues that can hinder the performance, accuracy, and generalizability of the model. This process involves examining various aspects of the model, including the data, features, training process, and evaluation metrics.

Real-World Strategies for Model Debugging | by Patrick Hall | Towards Data  Science

For ML models, the debugging process is more than just addressing errors or bugs in the code. It comprises a systematic approach to understanding why an ML model is underperforming or failing to meet expectations. This process involves various aspects of the model, including:

  • Data: Data quality issues, such as noise, incompleteness, or imbalance, can significantly impact model performance.
  • Features: The features extracted from the data serve as the inputs to the ML model. Irrelevant, redundant, or poorly encoded features can hinder the model's learning ability.
  • Training process: The training process involves optimizing the model parameters to minimize prediction error.
  • Evaluation metrics: The choice of evaluation metrics determines how the model's performance is assessed. Selecting metrics that align with the model's intended use is crucial for making informed decisions.

Common Machine Learning Model Issues

ML models can encounter a range of issues that impede their effectiveness. Some of the most prevalent ML model debugging challenges include:

  1. Underfitting: This occurs when the model is too simple to capture the underlying patterns and relationships in the data, resulting in poor generalization to unseen data. Underfitting is often characterized by low training error but high validation error.
  2. Overfitting: Conversely, overfitting arises when the model memorizes the training data too well, leading to poor performance on new data. Overfitting is often characterized by high training error and low validation error.
  3. Data quality issues: Noisy, incomplete, or imbalanced data can significantly impact model performance. Noisy data contains errors or inconsistencies, leading to inaccurate predictions. Incomplete data lacks values for certain features, affecting the model's ability to learn effectively. An imbalance occurs when one class significantly outnumbers the others in the dataset, causing the model to prioritize the majority class and neglect the minority class.
  4. Feature engineering issues: Irrelevant, redundant, or poorly encoded features can negatively affect the model's ability to learn effectively. Irrelevant features provide no valuable information for the task, while redundant features contain duplicate information. Poorly encoded features can introduce noise or bias into the model's learning process.
  5. Algorithmic limitations: The chosen algorithm may not be suitable for the task or data at hand. Some algorithms are better suited for certain types of problems, such as classification or regression. Additionally, the algorithm's complexity should be commensurate with the complexity of the data.

Debugging Techniques and Strategies

Effective ML model debugging requires a combination of techniques and strategies to identify and resolve performance issues. Here are some key ML model debugging strategies:

Cross-validation and Validation Curves

Cross-validation involves splitting the data into multiple subsets and repeatedly training the model on different combinations of training and validation sets. This helps assess the model's generalization performance and avoid overfitting.

Validation curves visualize the model's performance as a function of the training data size. They can reveal overfitting or underfitting issues, indicating whether the model memorizes the training data too well or does not capture enough information from the data.

Model Visualization and Interpretation

Visualizing the model's decision-making process can reveal patterns and biases that may be affecting its performance. Techniques like feature importance plots, partial dependence plots, and interactive decision trees can provide valuable insights.

Feature importance plots show the relative contribution of each feature to the model's predictions. Partial dependence plots visualize how the model's prediction changes for a particular feature while holding other features constant. Interactive decision trees allow the model's decision-making process to be explored interactively, making it easier to identify potential biases.

Hyperparameter Tuning and Grid Search

Hyperparameters are configuration settings that control the behavior of the learning algorithm. Tuning these parameters can significantly impact model performance.

Grid search is a systematic approach to exploring different combinations of hyperparameter values to find the optimal set. This involves defining a range for each hyperparameter and evaluating the model's performance on a validation set for each combination of hyperparameter values.

Feature Selection and Engineering

Feature selection involves identifying the most relevant and informative features from the data, while feature engineering involves transforming or creating new features to improve the model's learning ability.

Feature selection techniques, such as filter methods, wrapper methods, and embedded methods, can be used to reduce the dimensionality of the data and remove irrelevant or redundant features.

Meanwhile, feature engineering techniques, such as one-hot encoding, scaling, and feature normalization, can transform raw features into a more suitable format for the model to learn from.

Resampling and Data Augmentation

Resampling techniques like oversampling (adding more samples from minority classes) and undersampling (removing samples from majority classes) can address data imbalance issues.

Data augmentation involves artificially increasing the size and diversity of the training data to improve model generalization. Techniques like image augmentation, text augmentation, and audio augmentation can be used to create new training examples without requiring additional data collection.

Monitoring for Concept Drift

Concept drift occurs when the underlying data distribution changes, causing the model to become outdated and perform poorly on new data. Techniques like monitoring performance metrics over time, using sliding windows for training, and employing adaptive learning algorithms can help detect and address concept drift.

Best Practices

Adopting best practices throughout the ML model development process can minimize debugging challenges and enhance the overall quality of the models. Here are some key recommendations:

  • Start with a simple model: Begin by developing a basic model and gradually increase complexity as performance improves. This approach allows for easier identification of issues and facilitates understanding of the model's behavior.
  • Use high-quality data: Ensure that the data used for training and evaluation is clean, balanced, and relevant to the task. Data quality issues can significantly impact model performance and make debugging more difficult.
  • Monitor training progress: Monitor training metrics, such as loss and accuracy, throughout the training process. This allows for early detection of potential overfitting or underfitting issues.
  • Validate thoroughly: Use various validation techniques, such as cross-validation and holdout sets, to assess the model's generalization performance on unseen data. This helps ensure that the model is not simply memorizing the training data and can effectively generalize to real-world scenarios.
  • Document your process: Maintain detailed documentation of the model development process, including data sources, feature engineering steps, model architecture, training parameters, and evaluation results. This documentation is a valuable resource for debugging and future model iterations.
  • Leverage debugging tools and frameworks: Utilize the available debugging tools and frameworks to streamline the debugging process and enhance your ability to identify and resolve issues.
  • Test extensively: Conduct comprehensive testing of the model across a wide range of inputs to ensure it can handle diverse scenarios and edge cases.
  • Seek feedback and collaboration: Share your model and debugging efforts with colleagues or experts in the field. Their feedback and insights can provide valuable perspectives and help identify potential issues.

Debugging Tools and Frameworks

Arming yourself with the right tools is paramount in model debugging. Here are some examples of popular debugging tools and frameworks:

  • TensorFlow Debugger: A comprehensive debugging environment for TensorFlow models, offering features like line-by-line execution, tensor visualization, and profiling tools.
  • Neptune AI: A platform for experiment tracking, model versioning, and performance monitoring, providing insights into model behavior and facilitating debugging.
  • DeepKit: An open-source framework for testing and debugging deep learning models, offering features like unit testing, model coverage analysis, and mutation testing.


ML model debugging is an integral part of the model development process, ensuring the effectiveness, reliability, and generalizability of these powerful tools.

By employing ML model debugging techniques, leveraging suitable tools and frameworks, and adopting best practices, data scientists can effectively address performance issues, enhance model interpretability, and build models that can adapt to real-world scenarios.

AI-powered platforms like MarkovML can help you employ responsible AI features, helping you minimize the risks posed due to the unintentional introduction of bugs. Responsible AI features such as assessing ML models for transparency, accountability, and trustworthiness can help minimize risks, improve interpretability, and help organizations comply with regulations. 

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