K-Means Clustering: A Primer

Clustering in Machine Learning refers to the process of grouping the data points into clusters or groups such that object in each group has similar characteristics. One can use a clustering algorithm to classify each data point into a particular category, given a set of data points. Theoretically, data points in the same group should exhibit identical properties and/or characteristics.

Source: Image from The Internet

Clustering belongs to family of unsupervised learning technique, because we do not have the ground truth to compare the clustering algorithm’s output to the true labels to test its accuracy. To know the different types of Machine Learning algorithms please follow here.

Clustering has a myriad of uses in a variety of industries. Some common applications for clustering include the following:

  • Image Segmentation

In this post we are concentrating on one of the clustering techniques— K-Means Algorithm. The article layout is as follows

  • Introduction


k-means algorithm belongs to centroid-based clustering technique that organizes the data into non-hierarchical clusters. For exhaustive list of clustering algorithm have a look at A Comprehensive Survey of Clustering Algorithms. Centroid-based algorithms are efficient, but sensitive to initial conditions and outliers.

The K-Means algorithm finds k clusters by choosing k data points at random as initial cluster centers. Each data point is then assigned to the cluster with center that is closest to that point. Each cluster center is then replaced by the mean of all the data points that have been assigned to that cluster. This process is iterated until no data point is reassigned to a different cluster.

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

In the above mentioned algorithm, there are two factors which we can control in order to obtain optimal clustering

  • Selection of the initial centroids

Controlling Factors

Selection of the initial centroids

  • Forgy Initialization — chooses any K points from the data at random as the initial centroids

The Convergence Criteria

Determines when iteration is exited. It represents a proportion of the minimum distance between initial cluster centers, so it must be greater than 0 but not greater than 1.

Determining the value of K

  1. ELBOW CURVE Method

One of the ways to determine the right number of clusters, K is by using the Elbow Curve method. The idea is to run the k-means clustering algorithm on the data points for a range of values of k (say, k from 1 to 10), and for each value of k calculate the sum of squared errors of all the data points to the centroid. This sum value is plotted against k.

There will be a sudden fall in the graph looking similar to human elbow

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

2. Silhouette analysis

In Silhouette analysis, we run the k-means clustering algorithm on the data points for a range of values of k (say, k from 1 to 10), and for each value of k we compute the mean of Silhouette coefficient of all the data points. The Silhouette Coefficient is calculated using

  • Intra-cluster distance of point i, a(i) — average distance between i and all the other data points in the cluster to which i belongs

The Silhouette Coefficient for a data point S(i) is

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

The mean value Silhouette coefficient is plotted against k.

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

S(i) will be in range [-1,1] where 1 represents appropriate clustering and -1 represents the dissimilarity between i and the cluster it belongs.


Image Compression

The objective of image compression is to reduce irrelevance and redundancy of the image data to be able to store or transmit data in an efficient form.

An image consists of a rectangular array of dots called pixels. Typically, each pixel has 3 channels (Red Green Blue) and each channel can have intensity values ranging between 0–255 ie, 8 bits (1 Byte). Therefore, one pixel is 3 Bytes. So, for an RGB image of shape WxH, the size of the image is 3xWxH Bytes. It can be drastically reduced without affecting the visual quality using K means clustering as follows.

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

The Original Image File Size: 219203 bytes
The Compressed Image File Size: 111200 bytes
Total Compression: 108003 bytes

Image Segmentation

Image segmentation is the process of partitioning a digital image into multiple segments. The goal is to simplify and/or change the representation of an image into something that is more meaningful and easier to analyze.

For a given image, if we can determine the number of objects present, we can cluster the images based on the pixel values.

Consider the following example: the image below can be segmented into 4 parts

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

So let’s check if we can use K means clustering algorithm with K=4 to obtain the segmented image.

Source: Image by UnhypedAI

As we can see above, the resultant segmented image looks decent enough (Without Fancy State Of The Art CNN’s Duhhhhhhhhhh!!)

Technical interview gotchas for k-means clustering

Attention aspiring Data Scientist!! Here are some interview questions for you!

  1. Does the selection of initial centroid affect the final resulting cluster?

Hint: In the below example, assuming k=2, what will be the resultant cluster if you pick {B, E} as centroids? Will it be the same as picking {D, F}?

Source: Image from NSU

2. What is the time complexity for Randomly initialized K-means clustering algorithm?

Please attempt it yourself first, before moving on to the solution.


  • Computing distance between two data points is O(m) where m is the dimensionality of the data point.

Final Notes

In this article, we tried to unhype the core idea of K means clustering and its applications. Feel free to comment with your ideas and doubts. You can reach out to us at unhypedai@gmail.com

We are here to unhype Mathematics, Data science and Machine learning concepts and make you fall in love with them just like we did.