1 Introduction
In undirected graphical models or Markov random fields, each node represents a random variable while the set of edges specifies the conditional independencies of the underlying distribution. When the random variables are jointly Gaussian, the models are called
Gaussian graphical models (GGMs) or Gauss Markov random fields. GGMs, such as linear state space models, Bayesian linear regression models, and thinmembrane/thinplate models, have been widely used in communication, image processing, medical diagnostics, and gene regulatory networks. In general, a larger family of graphs represent a larger collection of distributions and thus can better approximate arbitrary empirical distributions. However, many graphs lead to computationally expensive inference and learning algorithms. Hence, it is important to study the tradeoff between modeling capacity and efficiency.
Both inference and learning are efficient for treestructured graphs (graphs without cycles): inference can be computed exactly in linear time (with respect to the size of the graph) using belief propagation (BP) [1] while the learning problem can be solved exactly in quadratic time using the ChowLiu algorithm [2]. Since trees have limited modeling capacity, many models beyond trees have been proposed [3, 4, 5, 6]. Thin junction trees (graphs with low treewidth) are extensions of trees, where inference can be solved efficiently using the junction algorithm [7]. However, learning junction trees with treewidth greater than one is NPcomplete [6] and tractable learning algorithms (e.g. [8]) often have constraints on both the treewidth and the maximum degree. Since graphs with largedegree nodes are important in modeling applications such as social networks, flight networks, and robotic localization, we are interested in finding a family of models that allow arbitrarily large degrees while being tractable for learning.
Beyond thinjunction trees, the family of sparse GGMs is also widely studied [9, 10]. These models are often estimated using methods such as graphical lasso (or 1 regularization) [11, 12]. However, a sparse GGM (e.g. a grid) does not automatically lead to efficient algorithms for exact inference. Hence, we are interested in finding a family of models that are not only sparse but also have guaranteed efficient inference algorithms.
In this paper, we study the family of GGMs with small feedback vertex sets (FVSs), where an FVS is a set of nodes whose removal breaks all cycles [13]. The authors of [14]
have demonstrated that the computation of exact means and variances for such a GGM can be accomplished, using messagepassing algorithms with complexity
, where is the size of the FVS and is the total number of nodes. They have also presented results showing that for models with larger FVSs, approximate inference (obtained by replacing a full FVS by a pseudoFVS) can work very well, with empirical evidence indicating that a pseudoFVS of size gives excellent results. In Appendix A we will provide some additional analysis of inference for such models (including the computation of the partition function), but the main focus is maximum likelihood (ML) learning of models with FVSs of modest size, including identifying the nodes to include in the FVS.In particular, we investigate two cases. In the first, all of the variables, including any to be included in the FVS are observed. We provide an algorithm for exact ML estimation that, regardless of the maximum degree, has complexity if the FVS nodes are identified in advance and polynomial complexity if the FVS is to be learned and of bounded size. Moreover, we provide an approximate and much faster greedy algorithm when the FVS is unknown and large. In the second case, the FVS nodes are taken to be latent variables. In this case, the structure learning problem corresponds to the (exact or approximate) decomposition of an inverse covariance matrix into the sum of a treestructured matrix and a lowrank matrix. We propose an algorithm that iterates between two projections, which can also be interpreted as alternating lowrank corrections. We prove that even though the second projection is onto a highly nonconvex set, it is carried out exactly, thanks to the properties of GGMs of this family. By carefully incorporating efficient inference into the learning steps, we can further reduce the complexity to per iteration. We also perform experiments using both synthetic data and real data of flight delays to demonstrate the modeling capacity with FVSs of various sizes. We show that empirically the family of GGMs of size strikes a good balance between the modeling capacity and efficiency.
Related Work
In the context of classification, the authors of [15] have proposed the tree augmented naive Bayesian model, where the class label variable itself can be viewed as a sizeone observed FVS; however, this model does not naturally extend to include a larger FVS. In [16], a convex optimization framework is proposed to learn GGMs with latent variables, where conditioned on a small number of latent variables, the remaining nodes induce a sparse graph. In our setting with latent FVSs, we further require the sparse subgraph to have tree structure.
2 Preliminaries
Each undirected graphical model has an underlying graph , where denotes the set of vertices (nodes) and the set of edges. Each node corresponds to a random variable
. When the random vector
is jointly Gaussian, the model is a GGM with density function given by , where is the information matrix or precision matrix, is the potential vector, and is the partition function. The parameters and are related to the mean and covariance matrix by and . The structure of the underlying graph is revealed by the sparsity pattern of : there is an edge between and if and only if .Given samples independently generated from an unknown distribution in the family , the ML estimate is defined as
For Gaussian distributions, the empirical distribution is
, where the empirical mean and the empirical covariance matrix . The KullbackLeibler (KL) divergence between two distributions and is defined as . Without loss of generality, we assume in this paper the means are zero.Treestructured models are models whose underlying graphs do not have cycles. The ML estimate of a treestructured model can be computed exactly using the ChowLiu algorithm [2]. We use and to denote respectively the covariance matrix and the set of edges learned using the ChowLiu algorithm where the samples have empirical covariance matrix .
3 Gaussian Graphical Models with Known FVSs
In this section we briefly discuss some of the ideas related to GGMs with FVSs of size , where we will also refer to the nodes in the FVS as feedback nodes. An example of a graph and its FVS is given in Figure 1, where the full graph (Figure (a)a) becomes a cyclefree graph (Figure (b)b) if nodes 1 and 2 are removed, and thus the set is an FVS.
Graphs with small FVSs have been studied in various contexts. The authors of [17] have characterized the family of graphs with small FVSs and their obstruction sets (sets of forbidden minors). FVSs are also related to the “stable sets” in the study of tournaments [18].
Given a GGM with an FVS of size (where the FVS may or may not be given), the marginal means and variances and , for can be computed exactly with complexity using the feedback message passing (FMP) algorithm proposed in [14], where standard BP is employed two times on the cyclefree subgraph among the nonfeedback nodes while a special messagepassing protocol is used for the FVS nodes. We provide a new algorithm in Appendix D, to compute , the determinant of , and hence the partition function of such a model with complexity . The algorithm is described and proved in Appendix A.
An important point to note is that the complexity of these algorithms depends simply on the size and the number of nodes . There is no loss in generality in assuming that the size FVS is fully connected and each of the feedback nodes has edges to every nonfeedback node. In particular, after reordering the nodes so that the elements of are the first nodes ( is the set of nonfeedback nodes of size ), we have that where corresponds to a treestructured subgraph among the nonfeedback nodes, corresponds to a complete graph among the feedback nodes, and all entries of may be nonzero as long as (while ). We will refer to the family of such models with a given FVS as , and the class of models with some FVS of size at most as .^{1}^{1}1In general a graph does not have a unique FVS. The family of graphs with FVSs of size includes all graphs where there exists an FVS of size . If we are not explicitly given an FVS, though the problem of finding an FVS of minimal size is NPcomplete, the authors of [19] have proposed an efficient algorithm with complexity , where is the number of edges, that yields an FVS at most twice the minimum size (thus the inference complexity is increased only by a constant factor). However, the main focus of this paper, explored in the next section, is on learning models with small FVSs (so that when learned, the FVS is known). As we will see, the complexity of such algorithms is manageable. Moreover, as our experiments will demonstrate, for many problems, quite modestly sized FVSs suffice.
4 Learning GGMs with Observed or Latent FVS of Size
In this section, we study the problem of recovering a GGM from samples, where the feedback nodes are either observed or latent variables. If all nodes are observed, the empirical distribution is parametrized by the empirical covariance matrix . If the feedback nodes are latent variables, the empirical distribution has empirical covariance matrix . With a slight abuse of notation, for a set , we use to denote the marginal distribution of under a distribution .
4.1 When All Nodes Are Observed
When all nodes are observed, we have two cases: 1) When an FVS of size is given, we propose the conditioned ChowLiu algorithm, which computes the exact ML estimate efficiently; 2) When no FVS is given a priori, we propose both an exact algorithm and a greedy approximate algorithm for computing the ML estimate.
4.1.1 Case 1: An FVS of Size Is Given.
When a size FVS is given, the learning problem becomes solving
(1) 
This optimization problem is defined on a highly nonconvex set with combinatorial structures: indeed, there are possible spanning trees among the subgraph induced by the nonfeedback nodes. However, we are able to solve Problem (1) exactly using the conditioned ChowLiu algorithm described in Algorithm 1.^{2}^{2}2Note that the conditioned ChowLiu algorithm here is different from other variations of the ChowLiu algorithm such as in [20] where the extensions are to enforce the inclusion or exclusion of a set of edges. The intuition behind this algorithm is that even though the entire graph is not tree, the subgraph induced by the nonfeedback nodes (which corresponds to the distribution of the nonfeedback nodes conditioned on the feedback nodes) has tree structure, and thus we can find the best tree among the nonfeedback nodes using the ChowLiu algorithm applied on the conditional distribution. To obtain a concise expression, we also exploit a property of Gaussian distributions: the conditional information matrix (the information matrix of the conditional distribution) is simply a submatrix of the whole information matrix. In Step 1 of Algorithm 1, we compute the conditional covariance matrix using the Schur complement, and then in Step 2 we use the ChowLiu algorithm to obtain the best approximate (whose inverse is treestructured). In Step 3, we match exactly the covariance matrix among the feedback nodes and the covariance matrix between the feedback nodes and the nonfeedback nodes. For the covariance matrix among the nonfeedback nodes, we add the matrix subtracted in Step 1 back to . Proposition 1 states the correctness and the complexity of Algorithm 1. Its proof included in Appendix B.We denote the output covariance matrix of this algorithm as .
Proposition 1.
Algorithm 1 computes the ML estimate and , exactly with complexity . In addition, all the nonzero entries of can be computed with extra complexity .
4.1.2 Case 2: The FVS Is to Be Learned
Structure learning becomes more computationally involved when the FVS is unknown. In this subsection, we present both exact and approximate algorithms for learning models with FVS of size no larger than (i.e., in ). For a fixed empirical distribution , we define , a set function of the FVS as the minimum value of (1), i.e.,
(2) 
When the FVS is unknown, the ML estimate can be computed exactly by enumerating all possible FVSs of size to find the that minimizes . Hence, the exact solution can be obtained with complexity , which is polynomial in for fixed . However, as our empirical results suggest, choosing works well, leading to quasipolynomial complexity even for this exact algorithm. That observation notwithstanding, the following greedy algorithm (Algorithm 2), which, at each iteration, selects the single best node to add to the current set of feedback nodes, has polynomial complexity for arbitrarily large FVSs. As we will demonstrate, this greedy algorithm works extremely well in practice.
4.2 When the FVS Nodes Are Latent Variables
When the feedback nodes are latent variables, the marginal distribution of observed variables (the nonfeedback nodes in the true model) has information matrix . If the exact is known, the learning problem is equivalent to decomposing a given inverse covariance matrix into the sum of a treestructured matrix and a rank matrix .^{3}^{3}3It is easy to see that different models having the same cannot be distinguished using the samples, and thus without loss of generality we can assume is normalized to be the identify matrix in the final solution. In general, use the ML criterion
(3) 
where the optimization is over all nodes (latent and observed) while the KL divergence in the objective function is defined on the marginal distribution of the observed nodes only.
We propose the latent ChowLiu algorithm, an alternating projection algorithm that is a variation of the EM algorithm and can be viewed as an instance of the majorizationminimization algorithm. The general form of the algorithm is as follows:

Project onto the empirical distribution:

Project onto the best fitting structure on all variables:
In the first projection, we obtain a distribution (on both observed and latent variables) whose marginal (on the observed variables) matches exactly the empirical distribution while maintaining the conditional distribution (of the latent variables given the observed ones). In the second projection we compute a distribution (on all variables) in the family considered that is the closest to the distribution obtained in the first projection. We found that among various EM type algorithms, this formulation is the most revealing for our problems because it clearly relates the second projection to the scenario where an FVS is both observed and known (Section 4.1.1). Therefore, we are able to compute the second projection exactly even though the graph structure is unknown (which allows any tree structure among the observed nodes). Note that when the feedback nodes are latent, we do not need to select the FVS since it is simply the set of latent nodes. This is the source of the simplification when we use latent nodes for the FVS: We have no search of sets of observed variables to include in the FVS.
In Algorithm 3 we summarize the latent ChowLiu algorithm specialized for our family of GGMs, where both projections have exact closedform solutions and exhibit complementary structure—one using the covariance and the other using the information parametrization. In projection P1, three blocks of the information matrix remain the same; In projection P2, three blocks of the covariance matrix remain the same.
The two projections in Algorithm 3 can also be interpreted as alternating lowrank corrections : indeed,
In P1  
and in P2 
where the second terms of both expressions are of lowrank when the size of the latent FVS is small. This formulation is the most intuitive and simple, but a naive implementation of Algorithm 3 has complexity per iteration, where the bottleneck is inverting full matrices and . By carefully incorporating the inference algorithms into the projection steps, we are able to further exploit the power of the models and reduce the periteration complexity to , which is the same as the complexity of the conditioned ChowLiu algorithm alone. We have the following proposition.
Proposition 2.
Due to the page limit, we defer the description of the accelerated version (the accelerated latent ChowLiu algorithm) and the proof of Proposition 2 to Appendix C. In fact, we never need to explicitly invert the empirical covariance matrix in the accelerated version.
As a rule of thumb, we often use the spanning tree obtained by the standard ChowLiu algorithm as an initial tree among the observed nodes. But note that P2 involves solving a combinatorial problem exactly, so the algorithm is able to jump among different graph structures which reduces the chance of getting stuck at a bad local minimum and gives us much more flexibility in initializing graph structures. In the experiments, we will demonstrate that Algorithm 3 is not sensitive to the initial graph structure.
5 Experiments
In this section, we present experimental results for learning GGMs with small FVSs, observed or latent, using both synthetic data and real data of flight delays.
Fractional Brownian Motion: Latent FVS
We consider a fractional Brownian motion (fBM) with Hurst parameter defined on the time interval . The covariance function is . Figure 2 shows the covariance matrices of approximate models using spanning trees (learned by the ChowLiu algorithm), latent trees (learned by the CLRG and NJ algorithms in [21]) and our latent FVS model (learned by Algorithm 3) using 64 time samples (nodes). We can see that in the spanning tree the correlation decays quickly (in fact exponentially) with distance, which models the fBM poorly. The latent trees that are learned exhibit blocky artifacts and have little or no improvement over the spanning tree measured in the KL divergence. In Figure 3, we plot the KL divergence (between the true model and the learned models using Algorithm 3) versus the size of the latent FVSs for models with 32, 64, 128, and 256 time samples respectively. For these models, we need about 1, 3, 5, and 7 feedback nodes respectively to reduce the KL divergence to 25% of that achieved by the best spanning tree model. Hence, we speculate that empirically is a proper choice of the size of the latent FVS. We also study the sensitivity of Algorithm 3 to the initial graph structure. In our experiments, for different initial structures, Algorithm 3 converges to the same graph structures (that give the KL divergence as shown in Figure 3) within three iterations.
Performance of the Greedy Algorithm: Observed FVS
In this experiment, we examine the performance of the greedy algorithm (Algorithm 2) when the FVS nodes are observed. For each run, we construct a GGM that has 20 nodes and an FVS of size three as the true model. We first generate a random spanning tree among the nonfeedback nodes. Then the corresponding information matrix is also randomly generated: nonzero entries of are drawn i.i.d.
from the uniform distribution
with a multiple of the identity matrix added to ensure
. From each generated GGM, we draw 1000 samples and use Algorithm 2 to learn the model. For 100 runs that we have performed, we recover the true graph structures successfully. Figure 4 shows the graphs (and the KL divergence) obtained using the greedy algorithm for a typical run. We can see that we have the most divergence reduction (from 12.7651 to 1.3832) when the first feedback node is selected. When the size of the FVS increases to three (Figure (e)e), the graph structure is recovered correctly.Flight Delay Model: Observed FVS
In this experiment, we model the relationships among airports for flight delays. The raw dataset comes from RITA of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It contains flight information in the U.S. from 1987 to 2008 including information such as scheduled departure time, scheduled arrival time, departure delay, arrival delay, cancellation, and reasons for cancellation for all domestic flights in the U.S. We want to model how the flight delays at different airports are related to each other using GGMs. First, we compute the average departure delay for each day and each airport (of the top 200 busiest airports) using data from the year 2008. Note that the average departure delays does not directly indicate whether an airport is one of the major airports that has heavy traffic. It is interesting to see whether major airports (especially those notorious for delays) correspond to feedback nodes in the learned models. Figure (a)a shows the best treestructured graph obtained by the ChowLiu algorithms (with input being the covariance matrix of the average delay). Figure (b)b–(d)d show the GGMs learned using Algorithm 2. It is interesting that the first node selected is Nashville (BNA), which is not one of the top “hubs” of the air system. The reason is that much of the statistical relationships related to those hubs are approximated well enough, when we consider a 1FVS approximation, by a spanning tree (excluding BNA) and it is the breaking of the cycles involving BNA that provide the most reduction in KL divergence over a spanning tree. Starting with the next node selected in our greedy algorithm, we begin to see hubs being chosen. In particular, the first ten airports selected in order are: BNA, Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland, Newark, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, Salt Lake City. Several major airports on the coasts (e.g., Los Angeles and JFK) are not selected, as their influence on delays at other domestic airports is wellcaptured with a tree structure.
6 Future Directions
Our experimental results demonstrate the potential of these algorithms, and, as in the work [14], suggests that choosing FVSs of size works well, leading to algorithms which can be scaled to large problems. Providing theoretical guarantees for this scaling (e.g., by specifying classes of models for which such a size FVS provides asymptotically accurate models) is thus a compelling open problem. In addition, incorporating complexity into the FVSorder problem (e.g., as in AIC or BIC) is another direction we are pursuing. Moreover, we are also working towards extending our results to the nonGaussian settings.
Acknowledgments
This research was supported in part by AFOSR under Grant FA95501210287.
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Appendix A Computing the Partition Function of GGMs in
In Section 3 of the paper, we have stated that given the information matrix of a GGM with an FVS of size , we can compute and hence the partition function using a messagepassing algorithm with complexity . This algorithm is inspired by the FMP algorithm developed in [14] and is described in Algorithm 4.
Input: an FVS of size and an information matrix , where has tree structure with edge set .
Output:

Run standard Gaussian BP on with information matrix to obtain for all , for all , and for all and , where is the column of corresponding to node .

Compute with

Compute , the determinant of .

Output
Proposition 3.
Algorithm 4 computes exactly and the computational complexity is .
Lemma 1.
If the information matrix has tree structure , then we have
(4) 
where
Proof.
WLOG, we assume the means are zero. For any treestructured distribution with underlying tree , we have the following factorization:
(5) 
For a GGM of
nodes, the joint distribution, the singleton marginal distributions, and the pairwise marginal distributions can be expressed as follows.
Matching the normalization factors using (5), we obtain
(6)  
(7) 
∎
Now we proceed to prove Proposition 3.
Proof.
First, we show that computed in Step 2 of Algorithm 4 equals . We have
from the definition in Step 1. From Step 3, we can get
(8) 
Hence,
(9) 
From Lemma 1 to follow, we have
(10) 
Hence, we have proved the correctness of the algorithm. Now we calculate the complexity. The first step of Algorithm 4 has complexity using BP. Step 2 takes and the complexity of Step 3 is . Finally the complexity of Step 4 is since is a tree. The total complexity is thus . This completes the proof for Proposition3.
∎
Note that if the FVS is not given, we can use the factor2 approximate algorithm in [19] to obtain an FVS of size at most twice the minimum size with complexity , where is the number of edges.
Appendix B Proof for Proposition 1
b.1 Preliminaries
Proposition 1 states that Algorithm 1 computes the ML estimate with covariance (together with , the set of edges among the nonfeedback nodes) exactly with complexity , and that can be computed with additional complexity .
First, we define the following information quantities:

The entropy

The conditional entropy

The mutual information

The conditional mutual information

The conditional KL divergence: .
The (conditional) KL divergence is always nonnegative. It is zero if and only if the two distributions are the same (almost everywhere). When there is no confusion, the subscripts in the distributions are often omitted, e.g., written as . With a slight abuse of notation, l we use to denote the marginal distribution of under the joint distribution , and similarly to denote the conditional distribution of given under the joint distribution .
The standard ChowLiu Algorithm for GGMs is summarized in 5. The complexity is . Note that in Step 3, for a fixed , for any , can be computed following a topological order of with being the root. Hence, by bookkeeping the computed products along the paths, the complexity of computing each is .
b.2 Lemmas
Lemma 2 is a wellknown result stated without proof.
Lemma 2.
The p.d.f. of a treestructured model can be factorized according to either of the following two equations:

where is an arbitrary node selected as the root and is the unique parent of node in the tree rooted at .

For a given and a fixed tree with edge set among the nonfeedback nodes, Lemma 3 gives a closed form solution that minimizes the KL divergence.
Lemma 3.
(11) 
where is the set of distributions defined on a graph with a given FVS and a given spanning tree among the nonfeedback nodes. The minimum KL divergence is obtained if and only if: 1) ; 2) for any .
Proof.
With fixed and ,
(12) 
where (a) is obtained by using Factorization 1 in Lemma 2 with an arbitrary root node ; (b) can be directly verified using the definition of the information quantities, and the equality in (c) is satisfied when , , and , or equivalently when
(13) 
Next, we derive another expression of (12). By substituting (13) into Factorization s of Lemma 2, we have
Hence,
(14)  
(15)  
(16)  
(17)  
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