Machine learning strategies for multi-step-ahead time series forecasting

Souhaib Ben Taieb
(2014) PhD thesis, Free University of Brussels


How much electricity is going to be consumed for the next 24 hours? What will be the temperature for the next three days? What will be the number of sales of a certain product for the next few months? Answering these questions often requires forecasting several future observations from a given sequence of historical observations, called a time series. Historically, time series forecasting has been mainly studied in econometrics and statistics. In the last two decades, machine learning, a field that is concerned with the development of algorithms that can automatically learn from data, has become one of the most active areas of predictive modeling research. This success is largely due to the superior performance of machine learning prediction algorithms in many different applications as diverse as natural language processing, speech recognition and spam detection. However, there has been very little research at the intersection of time series forecasting and machine learning. The goal of this dissertation is to narrow this gap by addressing the problem of multi-step-ahead time series forecasting from the perspective of machine learning. To that end, we propose a series of forecasting strategies based on machine learning algorithms. Multi-step-ahead forecasts can be produced recursively by iterating a one-step-ahead model, or directly using a specific model for each horizon. As a first contribution, we conduct an in-depth study to compare recursive and direct forecasts generated with different learning algorithms for different data generating processes. More precisely, we decompose the multi-step mean squared forecast errors into the bias and variance components, and analyze their behavior over the forecast horizon for different time series lengths. The results and observations made in this study then guide us for the development of new forecasting strategies. In particular, we find that choosing between recursive and direct forecasts is not an easy task since it involves a trade-off between bias and estimation variance that depends on many interacting factors, including the learning model, the underlying data generating process, the time series length and the forecast horizon. As a second contribution, we develop multi-stage forecasting strategies that do not treat the recursive and direct strategies as competitors, but seek to combine their best properties. More precisely, the multi-stage strategies generate recursive linear forecasts, and then adjust these forecasts by modeling the multi-step forecast residuals with direct nonlinear models at each horizon, called rectification models. We propose a first multi-stage strategy, that we called the rectify strategy, which estimates the rectification models using the nearest neighbors model. However, because recursive linear forecasts often need small adjustments with real-world time series, we also consider a second multi-stage strategy, called the boost strategy, that estimates the rectification models using gradient boosting algorithms that use so-called weak learners. Generating multi-step forecasts using a different model at each horizon provides a large modeling flexibility. However, selecting these models independently can lead to irregularities in the forecasts that can contribute to increase the forecast variance. The problem is exacerbated with nonlinear machine learning models estimated from short time series. To address this issue, and as a third contribution, we introduce and analyze multi-horizon forecasting strategies that exploit the information contained in other horizons when learning the model for each horizon. In particular, to select the lag order and the hyperparameters of each model, multi-horizon strategies minimize forecast errors over multiple horizons rather than just the horizon of interest. We compare all the proposed strategies with both the recursive and direct strategies. We first apply a bias and variance study, then we evaluate the different strategies using real-world time series from two past forecasting competitions. For the rectify strategy, in addition to avoiding the choice between recursive and direct forecasts, the results demonstrate that it has better, or at least has close performance to, the best of the recursive and direct forecasts in different settings. For the multi-horizon strategies, the results emphasize the decrease in variance compared to single-horizon strategies, especially with linear or weakly nonlinear data generating processes. Overall, we found that the accuracy of multi-step-ahead forecasts based on machine learning algorithms can be significantly improved if an appropriate forecasting strategy is used to select the model parameters and to generate the forecasts. Lastly, as a fourth contribution, we have participated in the Load Forecasting track of the Global Energy Forecasting Competition 2012. The competition involved a hierarchical load forecasting problem where we were required to backcast and forecast hourly loads for a US utility with twenty geographical zones. Our team, TinTin, ranked fifth out of 105 participating teams, and we have been awarded an IEEE Power & Energy Society award.