Archive for October, 2013

Ways of obtaining empirical data in software engineering

October 23rd, 2013 No comments

For as long as I can remember I have been a collector of empirical data. Writing a book that involves analysis of empirical lots of data has added some focus to my previous scatter gun approach. I have been using three methods to obtain data relating to a recently read paper+one other approach:

  1. Download from researchers website,
  2. Emailing the author requesting a copy of the data,
  3. Reverse engineering numbers from the original paper (using tools like WebPlotDigitizer).
  4. Roll my sleeves up and do the experiment, write the extraction tool or convince a company to make its data available.

A sea change in attitudes to making data available seems to be underway. Until recently it was rare to find a researcher who provided a link for downloading data; in the last 12 months there has been a noticeable increase in the number of researchers making data, associated with a paper, available for download. I hope this increase continues and making data freely available becomes the accepted norm.

I regularly (once or twice a week) email the authors of a paper asking if I can have a copy of their data, typical responses include:

  • Yes, here it is,
  • Yes, but you cannot share it with anybody else (i.e., everybody has to get it from the original author). I have said “Thanks, but no thanks” in these cases since I make all the data I use freely available for download,
  • I no longer have a copy of the data (changed jobs, lost in a computer crash, etc). In one case an established repository at a university lost funding and has gone dark.
  • Data is confidential,
  • Plan to write more papers based on the data, will release it when done (obtaining good data can be very time consuming and I can appreciate researchers wanting to maximize their return on investment),
  • No response.

I have run a few experiments and have been luck enough to obtain data from one company.

When analysing data the most common ‘mistake’ I encounter is researchers failing to get the most out of the data they have. An example of this is two researchers who made some structural changes to the way a Java library worked and then ran a thorough before/after benchmark to investigate the impact; their statistical analysis consisted of reducing the extensive data down to mean+variance and comparing these across before/after (I built a regression model that makes a much stronger case for their claims).

Of course the usual incorrect use of statistical techniques does occur, but I have not spotted anything major. However, one study found: Willingness to Share Research Data Is Related to the Strength of the Evidence and the Quality of Reporting of Statistical Results, based on 49 papers published in two major psychology journals. Since I am concentrating on papers where the data is available I am probably painting an overly rosy picture of not getting things wrong.

As always, if anybody knows of ways of obtaining data that I have not mentioned (e.g., a twitter account to follow) do please let me know.

Programming using genetic algorithms: isn’t that what humans already do ;-)

October 18th, 2013 No comments

Some time ago I wrote about the use of genetic programming to fix faults in software (i.e., insertion/deletion of random code fragments into an existing program). Earlier this week I was at a lively workshop, Genetic Programming for Software Engineering, with some of the very active researchers in this new subfield.

The genetic algorithm works by having a population of different programs, selecting X% of the best (as measured by some fitness function), making random mutations to those chosen and/or combining bits of programs with other programs; these modified programs are fed back to the fitness function and the whole process iterates until an acceptable solution is found (or a maximum iteration limit is reached).

There are lots of options to tweak; the fitness function gets to decide who has children and is obviously very important, but it can only work with what get generated by the genetic mutations.

The idea I was promoting, to anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in front of me, was that the pattern of usage seen in human written code provides lots of very useful information for improving the performance of genetic algorithms in finding programs having the desired characteristics.

I think that the pattern of usage seen in human written code is driven by the requirements of the problems being solved and regular occurrence of the same patterns is an indication of the regularity with which the same requirements need to be met. As a representation of commonly occurring requirements these patterns are pre-tuned templates for genetic mutation and information to help fitness functions make life/death decisions (i.e., doesn’t look human enough, die!)

There is some noise in existing patterns of code usage, generated by random developer habits and larger fluctuations caused by many developers following the style in some popular book. I don’t have a good handle on estimating the signal to noise ratio.

There has been some work comparing the human maintainability of patches that have been written by genetic algorithms/humans. One of the driving forces behind this work is the expectation that the final patch will still be controlled by humans; having a patch look human-written like is thought to increase the likelihood of it being ‘accepted’ by developers.

Genetic algorithms are also used to improve the runtime performance of programs. Bill Langdon reported that the authors of a program ‘he’ had speeded up by a factor of 70 had not responded to his emails. This may be a case of the authors not knowing how to handle something somewhat off the beaten track; it took a while for Linux developers to start responding to batches of fault reports generated as part of software analysis projects by academic research groups.

One area where human-like might not always be desirable is test case generation. It is easy to find faults in compilers by generating random source code (the syntax/semantics of the randomness follows the rules of the language standard). This approach results in an unmanageable number of fault. Is it worth fixing a fault generated by code that looks like it would never be written by a person? Perhaps the generator should stick to producing test cases that at least look like the code might be written by a person.