CatBoost: A machine learning library to handle categorical (CAT) data automatically

Sunil Ray 07 Jun, 2020
5 min read


How many of you have seen this error while building your machine learning models using “sklearn”?

I bet most of us! At least in the initial days.

This error occurs when dealing with categorical (string) variables. In sklearn, you are required to convert these categories in the numerical format.

In order to do this conversion, we use several pre-processing methods like “label encoding”, “one hot encoding” and others.

In this article, I will discuss a recently open sourced library ” CatBoost” developed and contributed by Yandex. CatBoost can use categorical features directly and is scalable in nature.

“This is the first Russian machine learning technology that’s an open source,” said Mikhail Bilenko, Yandex’s head of machine intelligence and research.

P.S. You can also read this article written by me before “How to deal with categorical variables?“.


Table of Contents

  1. What is CatBoost?
  2. Advantages of CatBoost library
  3. CatBoost in comparison to other boosting algorithms
  4. Installing CatBoost
  5. Solving ML challenge using CatBoost
  6. End Notes


1. What is CatBoost?

CatBoost is a recently open-sourced machine learning algorithm from Yandex. It can easily integrate with deep learning frameworks like Google’s TensorFlow and Apple’s Core ML. It can work with diverse data types to help solve a wide range of problems that businesses face today. To top it up, it provides best-in-class accuracy.

It is especially powerful in two ways:

  • It yields state-of-the-art results without extensive data training typically required by other machine learning methods, and
  • Provides powerful out-of-the-box support for the more descriptive data formats that accompany many business problems.

“CatBoost” name comes from two words “Category” and “Boosting”.

As discussed, the library works well with multiple Categories of data, such as audio, text, image including historical data.

Boost” comes from gradient boosting machine learning algorithm as this library is based on gradient boosting library. Gradient boosting is a powerful machine learning algorithm that is widely applied to multiple types of business challenges like fraud detection, recommendation items, forecasting and it performs well also. It can also return very good result with relatively less data, unlike DL models that need to learn from a massive amount of data.

Here is a video message of Mikhail Bilenko, Yandex’s head of machine intelligence and research and Anna Veronika Dorogush, Head of Tandex machine learning systems.


2. Advantages of CatBoost Library

  • Performance: CatBoost provides state of the art results and it is competitive with any leading machine learning algorithm on the performance front.
  • Handling Categorical features automatically: We can use CatBoost without any explicit pre-processing to convert categories into numbers. CatBoost converts categorical values into numbers using various statistics on combinations of categorical features and combinations of categorical and numerical features. You can read more about it here.
  • Robust: It reduces the need for extensive hyper-parameter tuning and lower the chances of overfitting also which leads to more generalized models. Although, CatBoost has multiple parameters to tune and it contains parameters like the number of trees, learning rate, regularization, tree depth, fold size, bagging temperature and others. You can read about all these parameters here.
  • Easy-to-use: You can use CatBoost from the command line, using an user-friendly API for both Python and R.


3. CatBoost – Comparison to other boosting libraries

We have multiple boosting libraries like XGBoost, H2O and LightGBM and all of these perform well on variety of problems. CatBoost developer have compared the performance with competitors on standard ML datasets:

The comparison above shows the log-loss value for test data and it is lowest in the case of CatBoost in most cases. It clearly signifies that CatBoost mostly performs better for both tuned and default models.

In addition to this, CatBoost does not require conversion of data set to any specific format like XGBoost and LightGBM.


4. Installing CatBoost

CatBoost is easy to install for both Python and R. You need to have 64 bit version of python and R.

Below is installation steps for Python and R:

4.1 Python Installation:

pip install catboost

4.2 R Installation

devtools::install_github('catboost/catboost', subdir = 'catboost/R-package')


5. Solving ML challenge using CatBoost

The CatBoost library can be used to solve both classification and regression challenge. For classification, you can use “CatBoostClassifier” and for regression, “CatBoostRegressor“.

Here’s a live coding window for you to play around the CatBoost code and see the results in real-time:

In this article, I’m solving “Big Mart Sales” practice problem using CatBoost. It is a regression challenge so we will use CatBoostRegressor, first I will read basic steps (I’ll not perform feature engineering just build a basic model).

import pandas as pd
import numpy as np
from catboost import CatBoostRegressor

#Read trainig and testing files
train = pd.read_csv("train.csv")
test = pd.read_csv("test.csv")

#Identify the datatype of variables

#Finding the missing values
#Imputing missing values for both train and test
train.fillna(-999, inplace=True)

#Creating a training set for modeling and validation set to check model performance
X = train.drop(['Item_Outlet_Sales'], axis=1)
y = train.Item_Outlet_Sales

from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split
X_train, X_validation, y_train, y_validation = train_test_split(X, y, train_size=0.7, random_state=1234)

#Look at the data type of variables

Now, you’ll see that we will only identify categorical variables. We will not perform any preprocessing steps for categorical variables:

categorical_features_indices = np.where(X.dtypes != np.float)[0]

#importing library and building model
from catboost import CatBoostRegressor
model=CatBoostRegressor(iterations=50, depth=3, learning_rate=0.1, loss_function='RMSE'), y_train,cat_features=categorical_features_indices,eval_set=(X_validation, y_validation),plot=True)

As you can see that a basic model is giving a fair solution and training & testing error are in sync. You can tune model parameters, features to improve the solution.

Now, the next task is to predict the outcome for test data set.

submission = pd.DataFrame()
submission['Item_Identifier'] = test['Item_Identifier']
submission['Outlet_Identifier'] = test['Outlet_Identifier']
submission['Item_Outlet_Sales'] = model.predict(test)

That’s it! We have built first model with CatBoost


6. End Notes

In this article, we saw a recently open sourced boosting library “CatBoost” by Yandex which can provide state of the art solution for the variety of business problems.

One of the key features which excites me about this library is handling categorical values automatically using various statistical methods.

We have covered basic details about this library and solved a regression challenge in this article. I’ll also recommend you to use this library to solve a business solution and check performance against another state of art models.

Learn, Engage, Compete & Get Hired

Sunil Ray 07 Jun, 2020

I am a Business Analytics and Intelligence professional with deep experience in the Indian Insurance industry. I have worked for various multi-national Insurance companies in last 7 years.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Responses From Readers


sai 14 Aug, 2017

Correction: I best most of us! At least in the initial days. I bet *

mileta 15 Aug, 2017

Great article ! Thanks Sunil !

Sandeep David Golkonda
Sandeep David Golkonda 01 Sep, 2017

This is a great article. Exactly the same error I was facing today.. Thanks so much

fnaco 02 Sep, 2017

Awesome article Sunil! Thank you very much + greetings from Switzerland

Jeff King
Jeff King 23 Dec, 2017

Hello Sunil, I simply cannot import or run catboost .After I have successfully installed it I try importing it and get "Kernel dead"Not Trusted error in Jupyter. From command line it says "Python stopped working". What do you suggest?

Vikramlucky 10 Jan, 2018

Very Helpful! will definitely try this out!

Shaurya 09 Mar, 2018

Will CATBOOST perform equivalently good with multiclass imbalance data.?

Komal rajendra SONAWANE
Komal rajendra SONAWANE 10 Jan, 2022

I am interested for machine learning