Selecting optimal random forest predictive models: A case study on predicting the spatial distribution of seabed hardness

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© 2016 Li et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Spatially continuous predictions of seabed hardness are important baseline environmental information for sustainable management of Australia's marine jurisdiction. Seabed hardness is often inferred from multibeam backscatter data with unknown accuracy and can be inferred from underwater video footage at limited locations. In this study, we classified the seabed into four classes based on two new seabed hardness classification schemes (i.e., hard90 and hard70). We developed optimal predictive models to predict seabed hardness using random forest (RF) based on the point data of hardness classes and spatially continuous multibeam data. Five feature selection (FS) methods that are variable importance (VI), averaged variable importance (AVI), knowledge informed AVI (KIAVI), Boruta and regularized RF (RRF) were tested based on predictive accuracy. Effects of highly correlated, important and unimportant predictors on the accuracy of RF predictive models were examined. Finally, spatial predictions generated using the most accurate models were visually examined and analysed. This study confirmed that: 1) hard90 and hard70 are effective seabed hardness classification schemes; 2) seabed hardness of four classes can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy; 3) the typical approach used to pre-select predictive variables by excluding highly correlated variables needs to be re-examined; 4) the identification of the important and unimportant predictors provides useful guidelines for further improving predictive models; 5) FS methods select the most accurate predictive model(s) instead of the most parsimonious ones, and AVI and Boruta are recommended for future studies; and 6) RF is an effective modelling method with high predictive accuracy for multi-level categorical data and can be applied to 'small p and large n' problems in environmental sciences. Additionally, automated computational programs for AVI need to be developed to increase its computational efficiency and caution should be taken when applying filter FS methods in selecting predictive models.




Li, J., Tran, M., & Siwabessy, J. (2016). Selecting optimal random forest predictive models: A case study on predicting the spatial distribution of seabed hardness. PLoS ONE, 11(2).

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