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Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms

Analysis of Ward's Method


We study Ward's method for the hierarchical k-means problem. This popular greedy heuristic is based on the complete linkage paradigm: Starting with all data points as singleton clusters, it successively merges two clusters to form a clustering with one cluster less. The pair of clusters is chosen to (locally) minimize the k-means cost of the clustering in the next step.
Complete linkage algorithms are very popular for hierarchical clustering problems, yet their theoretical properties have been studied relatively little. For the Euclidean k-center problem, Ackermann et al. [1] show that the k-clustering in the hierarchy computed by complete linkage has a worst-case approximation ratio of Θ(log k). If the data lies in ℝd for constant dimension d, the guarantee improves to O(1) [23], but the O-notation hides a linear dependence on d. Complete linkage for k-median or k-means has not been analyzed so far.
In this paper, we show that Ward's method computes a 2-approximation with respect to the k-means objective function if the optimal k-clustering is well separated. If additionally the optimal clustering also satisfies a balance condition, then Ward's method fully recovers the optimum solution. These results hold in arbitrary dimension. We accompany our positive results with a lower bound of Ω((3/2)d) for data sets in ℝd that holds if no separation is guaranteed, and with lower bounds when the guaranteed separation is not sufficiently strong. Finally, we show that Ward produces an O(1)-approximative clustering for one-dimensional data sets.

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cover image Proceedings
Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms
Pages: 2939 - 2957
Editor: Timothy M. Chan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
ISBN (Online): 978-1-61197-548-2


Published online: 2 January 2019




This research was supported by ERC Starting Grant 306465 (BeyondWorstCase).

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