GitHub Contest Entry

A repository has been put up on GitHub with my solution. The repository is unlikely to be in a usable state.

During the middle of 2009, the web-based Git hosting service GitHub held a content recommendation contest. The idea was to create an algorithm that would recommend a set of repositories that a user might be interested in. I attempted this contest although I wasn’t exactly successful, mainly due to time issues and a lack of actual implementation. I will describe my process to getting where I wanted to go, along with the challenges faced.

The data that GitHub had supplied for analysis was provided in three files, data.txt, repos.txt and lang.txt. The data.txt file was simply a key-value store, mapping user IDs to repository IDs. repos.txt listed for each repository ID the following: the repository name, the creation date and (if applicable) the ID of the repository that it was forked from. Finally, for each repository ID in lang.txt, the language name and the amount of code in that language (in lines) were given.

My entry for this contest was written in R as I needed to learn it for a paper, and there’s no better way to learn a language than by practice. Fortunately, because the datasets were small, I would not run into any issues regarding the exhaustion of memory.

The first line of thought that went into the analysis of the data was to get it into a form where I could easily grab the information I wanted without having to parse through the txt files. My solution to this was to load the data into R, parse it, then run a large amount of INSERT queries into a SQLite database. This turned out to be reasonably quick to import all of the data, however the problem came when trying to query the database. The queries that I wanted to use on my SQLite database were slow, despite a few tricks I had applied to try to speed things up. As a result, I had to abandon the SQLite approach; this was a blessing in disguise as I would now be able to actually implement my algorithms in R and not SQL. In retrospect, trying to implement my recommendation queries in SQL was a bad idea; it should only have been used for a datastore, nothing more.

After now having the data easily available to me in nicely formatted data frames, the hard work was just beginning in choosing how to analyse this data. For starters my approach was that given a user X, we can see which repositories they are watching, from there we can see which users have the most in common with user X. With this list of users, recommend the 10 most common repositories that user X doesn’t have.

My first attempt at implementing this was quite naive. I attempted to iterate over the entire set of users, see how many repositories the current user has in common with each user and assign that value to the user. Once the entire list of users has been iterated, we now know which users are most in common with the current user, as a result, find the repositories that appear most in the top 100 users of this list. From there, we now have recommendation candidates based upon user association.

Whilst the algorithm may have been quite simple, it would’ve taken close to 3 hours on the old Athlon XP I had at the time per recommendation. I took a while at trying to optimise this problem and then, like a lot of tough coding problems, I got an idea that would massively reduce the time taken per recommendation. Instead of iterating through the entire list of users and checking for any relationship, simply find all users that have repositories that the current user has. This removes all useless users along with reducing the search space at least 100-fold. This new approach brought down recommendation times per user from 3 hours to 30s.

I then began work on improving my recommendation algorithm to associate a user’s repositories with those they had been forked from, or repositories that had been forked from it. While this may seem like it would prove to be a strong association, the indications I was getting was that there just wasn’t that much forking going on. As a result, the forking association wasn’t going to be a big factor in recommendations.

The next improvement I chose was to recommend repositories that shared similar programming languages. I went about this by first analysing the proportion of code that each language made up in terms of lines of code over a given user’s set of repositories. I repeated this for every user, although this proved to be quite time consuming (about half an hour over all users) it was going to be quick to make comparisons afterwards. I can’t remember how significant this factor ended up being but my assumption is that it would be very useful for predictive purposes.

As I mentioned earlier, I said that I can’t remember how significant language proportion associations were. This is because I didn’t end up submitting recommendations that used that factor. It turns out I was a little bit absent-minded about the dates (this was during a very busy semester for me) and all I ended up submitting were recommendations based on user associations. However, I know that the language association was quite strong because I could see that many other people essentially followed the same path as I attempted.

Lessons learned

R is great for statistical analyses and graphics, unfortunately this contest didn’t lend itself to those strong points. Admittedly, at the time the R code I was writing wasn’t idiomatic, nor was it particularly efficient. Given my experience with R now after having undertaken a paper on R and creating the GeneralizedHyperbolic package I’m sure I could speed up the code a fair bit. Despite this, more conventional languages like C, Python, Java, etc. would be more appropriate.

While you can write algorithms in SQL, it’s simply not designed for that. It’s much quicker to pull data from a database into memory and operate that in a language more suited to the task.

The technique I used to reduce recommendation times from 3 hours down to 30 seconds is something I’ll never forget. It seems blatantly obvious now, not so much at the time.

Although I had to use Git to submit my results, for some reason I felt like I could get away without having to use source control. This (obviously) turned out to be a pretty big mistake, as I ended up replicating copies of code at several states during the process anyway. I guess this was pretty much a filesystem equivalent of committing but without messages (outside of filenames anyway…). Only after becoming very familiar with Git later on did I become aware of the magnitude of my folly.


After the contest was over, many decided to post (as I have done) the process at which they attacked the problem, perhaps with the generating code too. This revealed to me not only where I would’ve placed had I pieced together my entire algorithm (turns out I would’ve placed in the top 40) but what my algorithm was lacking.

It turns out that the winners of the contest blended the results from other top ranking contestants results. While this does achieve most accurate results, it is not a particularly useful algorithm by itself. As a result, GitHub also awarded a prize to Jeremy Barnes for his second placed effort, and the fact that he produced a wonderful README that went into great depth as to how he went about solving the problem. After having a quick look at his site, it comes as no surprise that he’s quite an expert in this field. If you would like to know more about this, have a read through Jeremy’s contest entry repository.