Data Containers

Data handling is an important aspect of a machine learning library. Shark ships with three container classes tailored to holding data for machine learning applications: Data, UnlabeledData, and LabeledData. After familiarizing yourself with the basic concepts, have a look at the complete list of data tutorials.

A decisive difference between Shark 3.x and previous Shark version and many other machine learning libraries is that the data is not stored in a generic container, but in objects tailored to efficient large-scale machine learning.

The containers presented in this tutorial can all be used by including:

#include <shark/Data/Dataset.h>

Key properties

The data containers provided by shark can store all types of data that could also be held in one of the standard template library containers. In contrast to a std::vector, the Data class has three abilities that are important in the context of machine learning:

  • Elements of a data set are stored in blocks called batches, such that computations can be carried out block by block, instead of element by element. These batches are optimized for continuous memory access, which allows for more efficient processing and thus faster implementations. For example, a batch of vectors is stored as a matrix with consecutive memory with every point occupying a matrix row, instead of using several vectors with memory locations scattered all over the heap. This is achieved through Shark’s batch mechanism.
  • A Data object can be used to create subsets. This is useful, for example, for splitting data into training, validation, and test sets. Repeated splitting (for example for cross-validation) is possible without expensive deep copy operations.
  • By the same token data can be shared among different Data instances. Thus creating subsets (on the level of batches) is quite cheap as it does not need a physical copy of the contents of the set. One should not confuse this with the different concept of lazy-copying, which just delays the copy until an actual change is done. Instead sets are shared by default and only copied when actually required by the algorithm.

Different types of data sets

The three data set classes in shark differ not much in their implementation, as they all use the same underlying structure. However they provide important semantic differentiation as well as special functions tailored to this differentiation. Before we introduce the interface of the data object we want to clarify this distinction:

  • Data can store arbitrary data. The data class takes the general role of a std::vector only adapted to the special needs for fast computation in a machine learning environment.

  • UnlabeledData represents input data which is not labeled. This is the input format used for unsupervised learning methods. The unlabeled data class is a subclass of Data and does not offer much new functionality beyond Data. But it represents an important semantic difference, since the data points are interpreted as input data without labels, whereas the above mentioned Data class might store anything (for example model outputs, labels, or points).

  • LabeledData finally represents inputs (data points) augmented with labels. Conceptually the class LabeledData<I,L> can be described roughly as a Data object storing a pair-type of inputs I and labels L, for example Data<std::pair<I,L> >. There is however an important difference in how labels and inputs are treated in machine learning. Often, especially for unsupervised methods, we use only the inputs, thus viewing the object as an UnlabeledData<I>. For evaluation of the model we first use the set of inputs, then acquire the set of predictions of the model, and finally compare this set of predictions to the set of labels by means of a loss function. Instead of accessing input-label pairs as a fixed grouping, we would like to view them as two separate data sets that are conveniently bound together. And this is how the LabeledData object is implemented under the hood.

    For convenience, there exist the following three specializations of labeled data sets:

    typedef LabeledData<RealVector, unsigned int> ClassificationDataset;
    typedef LabeledData<CompressedRealVector, unsigned int> CompressedClassificationDataset;
    typedef LabeledData<RealVector, RealVector> RegressionDataset;

The class Data<T>

This part of the tutorial introduces the interface of Data. The following descriptions also apply to the two other types of data sets.

Creation and copying of data sets

Creating a data set is quite easy and can be achieved in several ways. The first and by far easiest way is to load data from a file or to sample from a distribution. Examples for this are given in the tutorial on importing data. In some cases data is already in memory and only needs to be imported into a data container. In this case a data set can be created using:

std::vector<RealVector> points;
Data<RealVector> data = createDataFromRange(points);

A LabeledData object is created from inputs and labels:

std::vector<RealVector> inputs;
std::vector<unsigned int> labels;
ClassificationDataset data = createLabeledDataFromRange(inputs, labels);

It is also possible to create an data set with pre-allocated space for n points. This requires an example point:

Data<RealVector> data(1000, RealVector(5));

In the above example, we create a data container with space for 1000 5-dimensional vectors. The provided Vector is not copied to all 1000 elements, but it serves merely as a hint on the structure of the objects to be stored. To understand this, remember that objects are not stored as single entities, but grouped into batches. A batch of RealVector objects in a RealMatrix. The vector’s dimension is required for the proper creation of the matrices holding the batches, and this is what the data dimension is required for. In essence this call does not create 1000 instances of RealVector? together with the same amount of memory allocations, but only a hand full of matrices. By default a safe size is used for the number of elements in a batch, but it can also be actively controlled by adding the maximum size of batches as a third parameter:

Data<RealVector> data(1000, RealVector(5), 100);

Data sets can be copied and assigned with the usual operators:

Data<RealVector> data2(data);
data = data2;

Here one of the core features of the Data containers comes into play. As already mentioned in the key properties section above, assignment does not trigger a deep copy operation. Instead data is shared among different instances. The above code thus creates a shallow (hence cheap) copy of the underlying data. Afterwards both Data objects hold references to the same data batches.

Sometimes it is important to ensure that contents (batches) of a set are not shared with other instances. This can be ensured with:


This function creates a deep copy of all batches that were previously shared with other Data instances.


For efficiency and flexibility, Data objects provide full read and write access to their internal batch structure. This makes it possible to mess with the container’s data sharing capability. A direct modification to a shared batch affects all Data objects sharing this batch, irrespective of which data set was used to access the batch. As a precaution measure always call makeIndependent on a Data object before modifying its internals.

Data sharing is thread-safe, thus it is perfectly fine to create shared copies of (parts of) a data object in multiple threads. However, it must be stressed that the Data class does not guard against changes to the individual batches or single elements (see the warning above). Changing an element in one instance of the data object will change the respective elements in all other containers as well. This is nearly always undesired and results in hard-to-find bugs.

The elements in UnlabeledData and LabeledData objects can be conveniently reordered by calling UnlabeledData::shuffle() and LabeledData::shuffle(), respectively. This is an examples of an operation that needs to reorganize the internal batch structure.

Data as a collection of batches

As outlined above, the Data class stores the points internally as batches and is therefore optimized for using these batches directly instead of accessing single points. Therefore this part of the tutorial will explain how the data set provides access to the batches and introduce common usage patterns.

The first thing to note is that the Data container does not attempt to be stl-compatible. This is because it needs to support access to its contents at two different levels of granularity, namely batch-wise and for element-wise.

However an stl compatible interface to batches can be acquired with the Data::batches() method:

typedef Data<RealVector>::batch_range Batches;
Batches batches = data.batches();

std::cout << batches.size() << std::endl;
for (auto pos = batches.begin(); pos != batches.end(); ++pos) {
        std::cout << *pos << std::endl;

or similarly when data is constant or a constant range is desired:

Data<RealVector>::const_batch_range batches = data.batches();

The above loop still looks a bit inconvenient. We might as well use a range-for loop for traversal:

for(auto const& batch: data.batches()) {
        std::cout << batch << std::endl;

Or we can resort to index access:

for (std::size_t i = 0; i != data.numberOfBatches(); ++i) {
        std::cout << data.batch(i) << std::endl;

When iterating over batches in an outer loop, individual elements can be accessed within each batch in an inner loop:

for(auto const& batch: data.batches()) {
        for(std::size_t i=0; i != batchSize(batch); ++i) {
                std::cout << getBatchElement(batch,i );   // prints element i of the batch

Data as a collection of elements

While the data object is optimized for batch access, sometimes direct access to single elements is needed. Thus the Data container also provides a convenience interface for elements, however, with much worse performance guarantees than for batch access. While the interfaces look very similar one should be aware of the important differences.

First of all, all elements stored in the data set are only virtual for most input types. This means that querying the i-th element of the set does not return a reference to it, but instead returns a proxy object that acts as a reference. For example when storing RealVector elements in a Data<RealVector> object, elements are stored row-wise in a (row-major) RealMatrix. Hence a matrix row is returned as a proxy. This is no problem most of the time, however when using the returned value as an argument to a function like for example:

void function(RealVector& element);

the compiler will complain that a matrix row is not a vector. In the case of:

void function(RealVector const& element);

the compiler is very helpful, creating a temporary vector and copying the matrix row into it. However, this is slow, and moreover it is unnecessary. Be aware of this performance pitfall and use template arguments or the correct reference type of the data set if possible:

void function(Data<RealVector>::element_reference const& element);

The second pitfall is that we can’t give strong performance guarantees for the access methods. As we allow batch resizing and all batches having a different size it is not easy to keep track of the actual number of elements stored in the set. Thus Data::numberOfElements() needs to iterate over all batches and hence takes time linear in the number of batches (and thus usually in the number of elements). For the same reason, accessing the i-th element with Data::element() is a linear time operation in the number of batches since it needs to find the batch the element is located in.


Element-wise random access to a Data a object is a linear time operation! It is not to be confused with constant-time element access in arrays. Thus aside from only very small data sets or performance uncritical code you should never use element-wise random-access to a data container.

As a consequence a naive loop iterating over the elements of a Data container is a quadratic time operation. There are the following more appropriate ways of achieving this common operation in linear time:

typedef Data<RealVector>::element_range Elements;

// 1: explicit iterator loop using the range over the elements
Elements elements = data.elements();
for (auto pos = elements.begin(); pos != elements.end(); ++pos) {
        std::cout << *pos << std::endl;

// 2: foreach
//note pass by value, the range returns proxy elements instead of references
for(auto element: data.elements()) {
        std::cout << element << std::endl;

Summary of element access

We will now summarize the above description in a more formal tabular layout. For brevity of description we only present the non-const version of each method and typedef.

Typedefs of the Data container. For every reference and range there exists a corresponding immutable version prepending const_ to the name:

Type Description
element_type The type of elements stored in the object.
element_reference Reference to a single element. This is a proxy reference, meaning that it can be something more complex than element_type&, for example an object describing the row of a matrix.
element_range Range over the elements.
batch_type The batch type of the Data set. Same as Batch<element_type>::type
batch_reference Reference to a batch of points. This is batch_type&.
batch_range Range over the batches.

Methods for batch access. These methods have constant time complexity:

Method Description
size_t numberOfBatches () const Returns the number of batches in the set.
batch_reference batch (size_t i) Returns the i-th batch of the set.
batch_range batches () Returns an stl-compliant random-access-container over the batches.

Methods for element access. All these methods have time complexity linear in the number of batches:

Method Description
size_t numberOfElements () const Returns the number of elements in the set.
element_reference element (size_t i) Returns the i-th element of the set.
element_range elements () Returns a bidirectional container of elements. Random access is also supported but does not meet stl’s time complexity requirements. Also be aware that proxy-objects are returned instead of references.

Furthermore, LabeledData supports direct access to the Containers storing elements and labels:

Method Description
UnlabeledData<I>& inputs() Returns only the inputs of the LabeledData<I,L> object.
Data<L>& labels() Returns only the labels of the LabeledData<I,L> object.

Querying information about a data set

Sometimes we want to query basic informations about a data set like input dimension or the number of classes of a labeled data set. The data classes provide several convenience functions for such queries.

For Data and UnlabeledData there are three functions:

Data<unsigned int> data;
std::size_t classes = numberOfClasses(data);       // maximal class label minus one
std::vector<std::size_t> sizes = classSizes(data); // number of occurrences of every class label

Data<RealVector> dataVec;
std::size_t dim = dataDimension(dataVec);          // dimensionality of the data points

For LabeledData we have a similar set of methods:

LabeledData<RealVector, unsigned int> data;
std::size_t classes = numberOfClasses(data);       // maximal class label minus one
std::vector<std::size_t> sizes = classSizes(data); // number of occurrences of every class label
std::size_t dim = inputDimension(data);            // dimensionality of the data points

Transformation of data sets

In many applications data must be pre-processed before actual learning. For example, the data mean is to be removed, or labels need to be altered in order to fit into Shark’s label convention (see the tutorial on labels). For this purpose Shark provides a smart and efficient transformation mechanism. Assume function objects f and g such that f(input) returns the transformed input vector and g(label) the transformed label. Then we can transform data sets by:

Data<RealVector> data;                             // initial data set
data = transform(data, f);                         // applies f to each element

LabeledData<RealVector, unsigned int> labeledData; // initial labeled dataset
labeledData = transformInputs(labeledData, f);     // applies f to each input
labeledData = transformLabels(labeledData, g);     // applies g to each label

The transformation mechanism itself is smart! If f does not only provide a function f(input) but also f(Batch_of_input>) returning the same transformation for a whole batch then this is applied instead. Batch transformations are often more efficient than applying the same transformation to all elements one after another. Hence this can be a real time saver. The models provided by Shark are examples of classes satisfying this requirement:

// a linear model, for example for whitening
LinearModel<> model;
// application of the model to the data
labeledData = transformInputs(labeledData, model);
// or an alternate shortcut:
data = model(data);

It is easy to write your own transformation. A simple example functor that adds a constant to all elements in the data set could look like this:

class Add
        Add(RealVector offset) : m_offset(offset) {}

        typedef RealVector result_type;   // do not forget to specify the result type

        RealVector operator () (RealVector input) const { // const is important
                return (input + m_offset);

        RealVector m_offset;

It is applied to the data set by calling:

RealVector v(3); v(0) = 1.0; v(1) = 3.0; v(2) = -0.5;
data = transform(data, Add(v));


Never never forget the definition of the result_type! It is needed by transform to be smart, i.e., to deduce the corresponding batch type. If you happen to get nasty template error messages with transform then your first bet should be that you maybe forget to define the result_type.

Element views: DataView<Dataset>

Sometimes one needs to perform intensive single-element, random access to data points, for example in decision tree training. In this case, the performance guarantees of Data are not sufficient, as every random access to an element needs to be translated into a list traversal. For such scenarios, Shark provides the class DataView. It provides another type of view on a data set under the assumption that the data will not change during the lifetime of the DataView object. A dataview object consumes linear space, as it stores the exact position of every element in the container (i.e., the index of the batch and position inside the batch). Thus creating a DataView object might lead to a big initial overhead which only pays off if the object is then used a lot. The DataView class is made available via:

#include <shark/Data/DataView.h>

Using a DataView object is easy:

Data<unsigned int> dataset;
DataView<Data<unsigned int> > view(dataset);
for (std::size_t i=0; i != view.size(); ++i) {
        std::cout << view[i] << std::endl;

Using a DataView object it is also possible to create element-wise subsets which can then be transformed back into data sets:

std::vector<std::size_t> indices;
// somehow choose a set of indices
Data<unsigned int> subsetData = toDataset(subset(view, indices));

After the operation, subset holds a copy of the points indexed by the subset operation. As in all other data set operations, the subset is organized in several batches. To control the maximum size of the batches toDataset also takes an optional second parameter:

Data<unsigned int> subsetData = toDataset(subset(view, indices), maximumBatchSize);

And the usual methods for querying data set informations also works for the view:

LabeledData<RealVector, unsigned int> dataset;
DataView<LabeledData<RealVector, unsigned int> > view(dataset);
std::cout << numberOfClasses(view) << " " << inputDimension(view) << std::endl;

See the doxygen documentation for more details!