MOEA Performance Metrics

MOEA Performance Metrics

“How well is my search algorithm doing?”, you ask.

Well, that’s a great question!

Let’s first look at the example of a single-objective, analytical formulation such as an LP.  Generally speaking we know there is either no solution, exactly one solution, or infinitely many solutions to the LP.  A solution is optimal, but it’s only optimal with respect how you defined your problem.  We’ll take the example of trying to optimize the production of items in a factory and show two potential issues with the classical approach.  First, an LP formulation of such a problem can’t consider economies of scale (i.e., the first unit costs just as much as the 100,000th unit).  You may need a more complicated model of your process, such as a full scale simulation model, to characterize your solution better.  Second, there may be multiple objectives to consider.  You can minimize cost in an LP, but what about resource usage? Time of production? And so on.

The approach we talk about here seeks to address these concerns.  Our approach is a simulation-optimization approach, which means the complex simulation model is embedded in the search — how the system is characterized in the simulation is included when you’re generating alternatives.  And it is many-objective, which means you can generate the explicit tradeoffs between conflicting objectives.  Such a tradeoff is called the Pareto-optimal frontier, and if you can’t prove you have the true Pareto optimal frontier you have the Pareto-approximate frontier.

But there is a challenge!  And the challenge relates to our original question.  For a difficult problem, it’s very hard to prove that you have the true Pareto optimal frontier.  Even if you have a best-known approximation to the frontier, how do you know “how good”  any single run of a MOEA has done, at getting you near that best-known approximation?


The best known set (black), and one approximation of it (gray). Preferred solutions are found toward the lower left corner (i.e., a min-min problem)

In the image above, we want to minimize both objectives.  So preferred solutions are near the lower left corner of the figure.  The best known approximation set is shown in black.  A given run of an algorithm produces the gray points.  There’s two concepts we can consider.  The first is convergence — how “close” did we come to finding the black set?  The second is diversity — are there points that are fully spread across the set?  Or is there only a cluster at, say, high values of the first objective?

Visual evaluation of your approximation set can start to help you answer these questions.  It’s especially helpful if you can visualize the MOEA’s performance during the search process itself.  But this can be challenging for high-dimensional problems.  Luckily there are quantitative metrics that can give you a feeling for both convergence and diversity of your approximation sets.

Quantitative Metrics

For the rest of this post, I wanted to just give an informal description of three important performance metrics.  For a full description, please see a reference such as our recent comparison of MOEA performance on water problems, published in Advances in Water Resources.

Also, users of MOEAframework can easily calculate these metrics for their own problems!

Generational Distance

Generational Distance illustration. Red lines show distance between approximation and the best approximation.

Generational Distance illustration. Red lines show distance between approximation and the best approximation.

Generational Distance gives a good first approximation of the performance of your approximation set.  The red lines in the figure show a calculation of distance.  For each of the gray points, find the closest point in the best approximation.  The metric is then the average of these distances.  We consider this an “easy” metric to meet, because in a situation where you only have one solution close to the set, you’d have almost perfect Generational Distance performance.

Epsilon Indicator

Epsilon Indicator is the distance that you'd have to translate your set to have it "dominate" the best approximation.

Epsilon Indicator is the worst-case distance that you’d have to translate your set to have it “dominate” the best approximation.

Epsilon indicator is considered a “harder” metric to meet.  It’s based on the idea of one set “dominating” another: having better performance in both objectives.  Near the top of the figure, we see that the gray points are close to the black points.  But on the lower right side of the figure, the gray points are much further from the black ones.  Epsilon indicator uses the worst-case distance that you would have to translate the approximation set, in order to have it dominate the best-known approximation (see the red arrow in the illustration).

The metric is harder to meet, because now if you have a large gap in your approximation, you will have poorer metric performance.


The hypervolume compares a multidimensional volume determined by the approximation (red) to the volume determined by the best known approximation (black), relative to a reference point.

The hypervolume compares a multidimensional volume determined by the approximation (red) to the volume determined by the best known approximation (black), relative to a reference point.

The hypervolume metric captures both convergence and diversity.  It does this in a clever way — by looking at the multidimensional “volume” created by each set, relative to a reference point.  Such volumes are illustrated by the red and the black spaces on the figure.  You can see that you can’t really capture good hypervolume unless you have almost every point, across the full spread of objective function performance.  One downside is that the hypervolume is computationally intensive, but this is improving with new algorithms, some of which are supported by MOEAframework.

Writing a Paper in Markdown Using Pandoc

I’ve struggled up to now with the tension between drafting papers in Word (easy for co-authors to use for marking up revisions) and using LaTeX to prepare them for publication (because Word fights you and actively thwarts your efforts the whole time if you try to make a paper look half-decent.) When I start in Word and switch to LaTeX, there’s an awkward phase in the middle where I have to fix all of my quotation marks and em-dashes, and all of my equations, tables, and citations are completely broken.

Recently I discovered Pandoc, and I think it will streamline the transition quite a lot.  Pandoc is a document converter that converts several input formats to many output formats.  Here’s the list from running pandoc --help:

Input formats:  native, json, markdown, markdown_strict, markdown_phpextra, markdown_github, markdown_mmd, rst,  mediawiki, docbook, textile, html, latex

Output formats: native, json, docx, odt, epub, epub3, fb2, html, html5, s5, slidy, slideous, dzslides, docbook, opendocument, latex, beamer, context, texinfo, man, markdown, markdown_strict, markdown_phpextra, markdown_github, markdown_mmd, plain, rst, mediawiki, textile, rtf, org, asciidoc

That’s a lot of document formats!  In particular, it supports a “native” dialect of Markdown that it does a great job of translating both to LaTeX and to docx (Microsoft Word). Other nifty things you can do include:

  • Convert LaTeX to Word, including your BibTeX citations
  • Making PDFs from html (if you have LaTeX installed)
  • Writing Beamer presentations in Markdown (and exporting the LaTeX sources for the slides)
  • Use BibTeX citations in Markdown

I’m using Pandoc Markdown to draft my next paper, and while it’s not as full-featured as LaTeX for things like internal references, I find that it’s easier to write Word documents in Markdown than it is to write them in Microsoft Word!  To give just one example, it lets you caption figures properly.  Try making a figure in Word, adding a caption, and then moving or deleting the figure. The caption stays put.  Why on earth would I want that to happen? If I delete a figure in Pandoc Markdown, it takes extra effort to leave the caption behind.  In addition, when I switch my output format from Word to LaTeX source, Pandoc makes a figure environment with a \caption{} automatically.

My planned workflow is:

  1. Draft in Pandoc Markdown
  2. Convert Markdown to docx and share with co-authors
  3. Update Markdown sources based on revisions to the Word document
  4. Repeat 1-3 until the paper is mostly done
  5. Convert Markdown to LaTeX
  6. Final revisions and formatting in LaTeX

I’ll follow up to this post as I progress with drafting the paper. Right now I’m enjoying Pandoc Markdown quite a lot, and I highly recommend it.


All of the Analysis Code for my Latest Study is on GitHub

I’ve published to GitHub all of the code I wrote for the paper I’m currently working on.  This includes:

  • Python PBS submission script
  • Python scripts to automate reference set generation using MOEAFramework
  • Python scripts to automate hypervolume calculation using MOEAFramework and the WFG hypervolume engine
  • Python / Pandas scripts for statistical summaries of the hypervolume data
  • Python scripts to automate Sobol’ sensitivity analysis using MOEAFramework and tabulate the results.  (If I were starting today, I’d have an SALib version too.)
  • Python / Pandas / Matplotlib figure generation scripts:
    • Control maps for hypervolume attainment
    • Radial convergence plots (“spider plots”) for Sobol’ global sensitivity analysis results
    • Bar charts for Sobol’ global sensitivity analysis results
    • CDF plots (dot / shaded bar, plus actual CDF plots) for hypervolume attainment
    • Parallel coordinate plots
    • Input file generation for AeroVis glyph plotting
    • Joint PDF plots for hypervolume attainment across multiple problems

Not all of the figures I mentioned will turn up in the paper, but I provide them as examples in case they prove helpful.