I am currently conducting some analysis using NTSB aviation accident database. There are cause statements for most of the aviation incidents in this dataset that describe the factors lead to such event.

One of my objectives here is to try to group the causes, and clustering seems to be a feasible way to solve this kind of problem. I performed the followings prior to the beginning of k-means clustering:

  1. Stop-word removal, that is, to remove some common functional words in the text
  2. Text stemming, that is, to remove a word's suffix, and if necessary, transform the term into its simplest form
  3. Vectorised the documents into TF-IDF vector to scale up the less-common but more-informative words and scale down highly-common but less-informative words
  4. Applied SVD to reduce the dimensionality of vector

After these steps k-means clustering is applied to the vector. By using the events that occurred from Jan 1985 to Dec 1990 I get the following result with number of clusters k = 3:

(Note: I am using Python and sklearn to work on my analysis)

... some output omitted ... 
Clustering sparse data with KMeans(copy_x=True, init='k-means++', max_iter=100, n_clusters=3, n_init=1,
    n_jobs=1, precompute_distances='auto', random_state=None, tol=0.0001,
Initialization complete
Iteration  0, inertia 8449.657
Iteration  1, inertia 4640.331
Iteration  2, inertia 4590.204
Iteration  3, inertia 4562.378
Iteration  4, inertia 4554.392
Iteration  5, inertia 4548.837
Iteration  6, inertia 4541.422
Iteration  7, inertia 4538.966
Iteration  8, inertia 4538.545
Iteration  9, inertia 4538.392
Iteration 10, inertia 4538.328
Iteration 11, inertia 4538.310
Iteration 12, inertia 4538.290
Iteration 13, inertia 4538.280
Iteration 14, inertia 4538.275
Iteration 15, inertia 4538.271
Converged at iteration 15

Silhouette Coefficient: 0.037
Top terms per cluster:
**Cluster 0: fuel engin power loss undetermin exhaust reason failur pilot land**
**Cluster 1: pilot failur factor land condit improp accid flight contribute inadequ**
**Cluster 2: control maintain pilot failur direct aircraft airspe stall land adequ**

and I generated a plot graph of the data as follows:

Plot result of the k-means clustering

The result doesn't seem like make sense to me. I wonder why all of the clusters contain some common terms like "pilot" and "failure".

One possibility that I can think of (but I am not sure if it is valid in this case) is the documents with these common terms are actually located at the very centre of the the plot graph, therefore they can not be efficiently clustered into a right cluster. I believe this problem cannot be addressed by increasing the number of clusters, as I have just done it and this problem persists.

I just want to know if there is any other factors that could cause the scenario that I am facing? Or more broadly, am I using the right clustering algorithm?

Thanks StackExchange and Data Science Portal.

  • $\begingroup$ Try word 2 vector for word representation, then use k means clustering on those words. You will get more meaningful results. :) $\endgroup$
    – Nomiluks
    Apr 7, 2016 at 21:36

1 Answer 1


I made some similar studies on process descriptions on computers. The main difficulty was to discard words that were not meaningful. Which is hard because:

  • Some words appear in every clusters, but in different proportion. They should not be discarded, like "pilot". It is normal that "pilot" appears often, but depending on the number of occurrences it might signify that the pilot made a decisive action for the accident.
  • Some words appear very rarely, but they are the key words for the reason why the accident happened. Then it is very hard to find a way to give them more importance without adding direct prior knowledge to your clustering.

What I could suggest is:

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! I'd try your suggestion once I'm available. However, I believe that TF-IDF (Term Frequency - Inverse Document Frequency) is here to help with the problems that you addressed on the first two points. The fundamental intuition of using TF-IDF is that we regard a word that is very common in all documents as an undesirable discriminator. By weighing them down and encourage the term with lower occurrence we would be able to come up a better result. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2016 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ For the point of choosing k=3, TBH i have no idea of what number should i choose for k. I heard that silhouette coefficient is one of the measures that helps to determine this value so I performed clustering with k = (3...10), and the coefficient doesn't really improve a lot when k grows. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2016 at 11:35

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