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Exercise #2: Linear regression

Now that we have a trivial model running, we can do something more interesting. We will start with a simple example of Bayesian linear regression, using a bike sharing data set1 that will be provided in a suitable format.


The model is given by: where denotes the inverse-gamma distribution, and the multivariate normal distribution. The parameters of the model are the noise variance and vector of coefficients . The data consists of observations and explanatory variables for .


To specify this model in Birch, we again create a class that inherits from Model.


Create a file bi/ and enter the following code:

class LinearRegressionModel < Model {


Don't forget to add the file to META.json so that it is included in the build.

Next, we declare the random variables of the model. These are usually declared as member variables of the class.


Enter the following between the curly braces in the previous code:

   * Explanatory variables.

   * Regression coefficients.

   * Observation variance.

   * Observations.

We have again used the /** */ comment style to document each of these member variables, so that we can use the docs command in future.

Variables in Birch are typed, and declared with the syntax name:Type. Lines always end in semicolons. We see here a few different types:

  • Real is a double-precision floating point number.
  • Real[_] is a vector of Real.
  • Real[_,_] is a matrix of Real.
  • Random<Type> declares a random (variable) of given Type. The use of such randoms is optional, but it enables the use of the delayed sampling mechanism of Birch for full or partial analytical solutions to inference problems2. It is particularly useful for this example.


You can use Greek letters in Birch code. To enter them, you may need to install a separate keyboard in your operating system, or copy and paste from a character map.

Next, we need to establish the joint distribution of these random variables. The Model class has a member fiber called simulate that we override to specify the joint distribution of our model.

A fiber is a particular language construct in Birch. It is essentially a function for which execution can be paused and resumed. This is critical for many inference methods. For the purposes of this tutorial, we accept its use here as idiomatic.


Enter the following between the curly braces of the LinearRegressionModel class:

fiber simulate() -> Event {
  N:Integer <- rows(X);
  P:Integer <- columns(X);
  if N > 0 && P > 0 {
    σ2 ~ InverseGamma(3.0, 0.4);
    β ~ Gaussian(vector(0.0, P), identity(P)*σ2);
    y ~ Gaussian(X*β, σ2);

Hopefully, this looks similar enough to the equations given above that its meaning is clear. The if statement is merely defensive programming: it skips the model for the degenerate situations of no explanatory variables, or no data points.

It is worth building at this point to check that there are no errors in the code you have entered so far:

birch build
birch install

As before, we can run the model with

birch sample --model LinearRegressionModel

although this will not yet do anything interesting; for that, we need data.


If you receive an error message such as, could not create model, then you probably forgot to add to META.json.


We will use a data set from the Capital Bikeshare system in Washington D.C. for the years 2011 to 2012. The aim is to use weather and holiday information to predict the total number of bike hires on any given day1.

The data set has been preprocessed to convert categorical variables into multiple indicator variables; e.g. the season, a four-category variable, becomes four indicator variables. These conversions make it reasonable to attempt a linear regression. Each data point represents one day. The observation is of the logarithm of the total number of bike hires on that day.


Download the data set here and place it in your project's input/ directory as input/bike_share.json.

Add the file to META.json under

The file is in JSON format, which is the current standard file format for input and output in Birch. You can view and edit these files by hand with a text editor, or for larger files, there are packages available for most programming languages that will allow you to write pre- and post-processing scripts for your data. Birch will support more formats in time.

For now, have a look at the contents of the file in a text editor or web browser. It contains two variables: a matrix X and a vector y. We need to get these into our model.

The Model class has a member function called read that we can override for this purpose. Similarly, it has a member function called write that we can override for output.


Enter the following between the curly braces of the LinearRegressionModel class:

function read(buffer:Buffer) {
  X <- buffer.getRealMatrix("X")!;
  y <- buffer.getRealVector("y")!;

function write(buffer:Buffer) {
  buffer.set("β", β);
  buffer.set("σ2", σ2);


birch build

This read member function reads from the input file into the variables X and y. The strings "X" and "y" name elements in the input file. While the names correspond in this case, they need not in general. Similarly, the write function writes to the output file.

The Buffer class provides the interface for easily reading and writing these. Its get() style member functions return optionals, as the requested variable may not exist in the file, or may not have the correct type. We are being somewhat lazy with the above code by using the ! operator after each call, essentially assuming that the variables do exist.

Optionals are quite common in Birch code. They are useful for handling missing values. A more idiomatic usage is as follows:

Z:Real[_,_]? <- buffer.getRealMatrix("X");
if Z? {
  X <- Z!;

The ? after the type declares an optional variable, the ? operator in the if statement condition checks if it has a value, the ! operator in the if body retrieves that value, if it exists.

In more recent versions of Birch, the <-? operator provides a shortcut for precisely the above code, and it is possible to write the simpler:

X <-? buffer.getRealMatrix("X");



Sample from the posterior distribution with the command:

birch sample \
    --model LinearRegressionModel \
    --input input/bike_share.json \
    --output output/linear_regression.json


Debugging mode is enabled by default, which dramatically slows down execution times when running birch. It is recommended that you keep debugging mode enabled when developing and testing code (perhaps on small problems), but disable it when running tested code.

To disable it, you must build both the standard library and your project with the --disable-debug option:

birch build --disable-debug
birch install --disable-debug

The particular model that we have written has an analytical solution, and has been written in such a way that Birch will recognise this and compute it accordingly via its delayed sampling heuristic2. The above command will output to output/linear_regression.json. You can open this file in a text editor to inspect the result.


For technical reasons that continue to evolve, you may find that Birch outputs a posterior sample of both β and σ2, or chooses to marginalize out one or both variables to output distribution objects.

Birch does not yet include a facility for plotting (although see the Birch.Cairo package for basic 2d graphics functionality based on the Cairo library). You can use an environment such as that provided by Python, Julia, R, GNU Octave or MATLAB for this task. All of these provide facilities for reading and writing JSON files.

Keep in mind when inspecting the result that you are seeing a single posterior sample in this output file, not a mean or any other summary.

  1. H. Fanaee-T & J. Gama (2014). Event labeling combining ensemble detectors and background knowledge. Progress in Artificial Intelligence. 2:113-127. 

  2. L.M. Murray, D. Lundén, J. Kudlicka, D. Broman and T.B. Schön (2018). Delayed Sampling and Automatic Rao–Blackwellization of Probabilistic Programs. In Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics (AISTATS) 2018, Lanzarote, Spain.