Feature Importance & Random Forest – Python

Random forest for feature importance

In this post, you will learn about how to use Random Forest Classifier (RandomForestClassifier) for determining feature importance using Sklearn Python code example. This will be useful in feature selection by finding most important features when solving classification machine learning problem. It is very important to understand feature importance and feature selection techniques for data scientists to use most appropriate features for training machine learning models. Recall that other feature selection techniques includes L-norm regularization techniques, greedy search algorithms techniques such as sequential backward / sequential forward selection etc. 

What & Why of Feature Importance?

Feature importance is a key concept in machine learning that refers to the relative importance of each feature in the training data. In other words, it tells us which features are most predictive of the target variable. Determining feature importance is one of the key steps of machine learning model development pipeline. Feature importance can be calculated in a number of ways, but all methods typically rely on calculating some sort of score that measures how often a feature is used in the model and how much it contributes to the overall predictions.

Why is feature importance important? Because it can help us to understand which features are most important to our model and which ones we can safely ignore. This, in turn, can help us to simplify our models and make them more interpretable. Feature importance can also help us to identify potential problems with our data or our modeling approach. For instance, if a highly important feature is missing from our training data, we may want to go back and collect that data. Alternatively, if a feature is consistently ranked as unimportant, we may want to question whether that feature is truly relevant for predicting the target variable.

Feature importance is used to select features for building models, debugging models, and understanding the data. The outcome of feature importance stage is a set of features along with the measure of their importance. Once the importance of features get determined, the features can be selected appropriately. One can apply feature selection and feature importance techniques to select the most important features. Note that the selection of key features results in models requiring optimal computational complexity while ensuring reduced generalization error as a result of noise introduced by less important features.

Feature importance can be measured on a scale from 0 to 1, with 0 indicating that the feature has no importance and 1 indicating that the feature is absolutely essential. Feature importance values can also be negative, which indicates that the feature is actually harmful to the model performance.

Random Forest for Feature Importance

Feature importance can be measured using a number of different techniques, but one of the most popular is the random forest classifier. Using Random forest algorithm, the feature importance can be measured as the average impurity decrease computed from all decision trees in the forest. This is irrespective of the fact whether the data is linear or non-linear (linearly inseparable)

Sklearn RandomForestClassifier for Feature Importance

Sklearn RandomForestClassifier can be used for determining feature importance. It collects the feature importance values so that the same can be accessed via the feature_importances_ attribute after fitting the RandomForestClassifier model.  Sklearn wine data set is used for illustration purpose. Here are the steps:

  • Create training and test split
  • Train the model using RandomForestClassifier
  • Get the feature importance value
  • Visualize the feature importance

Create the Train / Test Split

Here is the python code for creating training and test split of Sklearn Wine dataset. The code demonstrates how to work with Pandas dataframe and Numpy array (ndarray) alternatively by converting Numpy arrays to Pandas Dataframe.

import pandas as pd
from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split
from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler
from sklearn import datasets
# Load the wine datasets
wine = datasets.load_wine()
df = pd.DataFrame(wine.data)
df[13] = wine.target
df.columns = ['alcohal', 'malic_acid', 'ash', 'ash_alcalinity', 'magnesium', 'total_phenols', 'flavanoids', 'nonflavanoids_phenols', 'proanthocyanins', 'color_intensity', 'hue', 'od_dilutedwines', 'proline', 'class']
# Create training and test split
X_train, X_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(df.iloc[:, :-1], df.iloc[:, -1:], test_size = 0.3, random_state=1)
# Feature scaling
sc = StandardScaler()
X_train_std = sc.transform(X_train)
X_test_std = sc.transform(X_test)
# Training / Test Dataframe
cols = ['alcohal', 'malic_acid', 'ash', 'ash_alcalinity', 'magnesium', 'total_phenols', 'flavanoids', 'nonflavanoids_phenols', 'proanthocyanins', 'color_intensity', 'hue', 'od_dilutedwines', 'proline']
X_train_std = pd.DataFrame(X_train_std, columns=cols)
X_test_std = pd.DataFrame(X_test_std, columns=cols)

Train the model using Sklearn RandomForestClassifier

Here is the python code for training RandomForestClassifier model using training and test data set created in the previous section:

from sklearn.ensemble import RandomForestClassifier

forest = RandomForestClassifier(n_estimators=500,
# Train the mode
forest.fit(X_train_std, y_train.values.ravel())

Determine feature importance values

Here is the python code which can be used for determining feature importance. The attribute, feature_importances_ gives the importance of each feature in the order in which the features are arranged in training dataset. Note how the indices are arranged in descending order while using argsort method (most important feature appears first)

import numpy as np

importances = forest.feature_importances_
# Sort the feature importance in descending order
sorted_indices = np.argsort(importances)[::-1]

feat_labels = df.columns[1:]

for f in range(X_train.shape[1]):
    print("%2d) %-*s %f" % (f + 1, 30, 

The following will be printed representing the feature importances.

Visualize the feature importance

With the sorted indices in place, the following python code will help create a bar chart for visualizing feature importance.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

plt.title('Feature Importance')
plt.bar(range(X_train.shape[1]), importances[sorted_indices], align='center')
plt.xticks(range(X_train.shape[1]), X_train.columns[sorted_indices], rotation=90)

Here is how the matplotlib.pyplot visualization pot looks like:

Visualization plot for feature importance using RandomForestClassifier
Fig 1. Visualization plot for feature importance using RandomForestClassifier
Ajitesh Kumar
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Ajitesh Kumar

I have been recently working in the area of Data analytics including Data Science and Machine Learning / Deep Learning. I am also passionate about different technologies including programming languages such as Java/JEE, Javascript, Python, R, Julia, etc, and technologies such as Blockchain, mobile computing, cloud-native technologies, application security, cloud computing platforms, big data, etc. For latest updates and blogs, follow us on Twitter. I would love to connect with you on Linkedin. Check out my latest book titled as First Principles Thinking: Building winning products using first principles thinking
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