Machine learning project review checklist

Imagine being a manager or technical chief whose team has been working on a machine learning project. What questions should you be thinking about when your team tells you about their work?

Here are some suggestions. Some of the questions are getting at reproducibility (for testing, archiving, or sharing the workflow), others at quality assurance. A few of the questions might depend on the particular task in hand, although I’ve tried to keep it pretty generic.

There are a few must-ask questions, highlighted in bold.

High-level questions about the project

  • What question were you trying to answer? How did you frame it as an ML task?

  • What is human-level performance on that task? What level of performance is needed?

  • Is it possible to approach this problem without machine learning?

  • If the analysis focused on deep learning methods, did you try shallow learning methods?

  • What are the ethical and legal aspects of this project?

  • Which domain experts were involved in this analysis?

  • Which data scientists were involved in this analysis?

  • Which tools or framework did you use? (How much of a known quantity is it?)

  • Where is the pipeline published? (E.g. public or internal git repositories.)

  • How thorough is the documentation?

Questions about the data preparation

  • Where did the feature data come from?

  • Where did the labels come from?

  • What kind of data exploration did you do?

  • How did you clean the data? How long did this take?

  • Are the classes balanced? How did the distribution change your workflow?

  • What kind of normalization did you do?

  • What did you do about missing data? E.g. what kind of imputation did you do?

  • What kind of feature engineering did you do?

  • How did you split the data into train, validate and test?

Questions about training and evaluation

  • Which models did you explore and why? Did you also try the simplest models that fit the problem?

  • How did you tune the hyperparameters of the model? Did you try grid search or other methods?

  • What kind of validation did you do? Did you use cross-validation? How did you choose the folds?

  • What evaluation metric are you using? Why is it the most appropriate one?

  • How do training, validation, and test metrics compare?

  • If this was a classification task, how does a dummy classifier score?

  • How are errors/residuals distributed? (Ideally normally distributed and  homoscedastic.)

  • How interpretable is your model? That is, do the learned parameters mean anything, and can we learn from them? E.g. what is the feature importance?

  • If this was a classification task, are probabilities available in your model and did you use them?

  • If this was a regression task, have you checked the residuals for normality and homoscedasticity?

  • Are there benchmarks for this task, and how well does your model do on them?

Next steps for the project

  • How will you improve the model?

  • Would collecting more data help? Can we address the imbalance with more data?

  • Are there human or computing resources you need access to?

  • How will you deploy the model?

Rather than asking them explicitly, a reviewer might check things off while reading a report or listening to a presentation. A thorough review would cover most of the points without being prompted. And I’d go so far as to say that a person or team who has done a rigorous treatment should readily have answers to all of these questions. They aren't supposed to be 'traps' exactly, but they are supposed to get to the heart of the issues the data scientist or team likely faced during their work.

What do you think? Are the questions fair? Are there any you would remove, or others you would add? Let me know in the comments.

Visit a Google Docs version of this checklist.

Thank you to members of the Software Underground Slack channel for discussion of these questions, especially Anton Biryukov, Justin Gosses, and Lukas Mosser.