K-Minimum Values: Sketching Error, Hash Functions, and You


“All known efficient cardinality estimators rely on randomization, which is ensured by the use of hash functions.”
–Flajolet, et al

Recalling the KMV algorithm Matt presented in his last post, one will note that every stream element is passed to a hash function as part of the processing step. This is meant to transform the data being operated on from its native distribution into something uniformly distributed. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and since all of the algorithm’s analysis assumes that this hash function does its job well, we wanted to get some sense of how it behaves under less friendly conditions. The first half of this post will investigate the algorithm’s performance when we artificially introduce bias, and the second half will look at its behavior with a handful of real hash functions.

A Simple Error Model

The first hash function error model that came to mind is admittedly unrealistic and ham-fisted, but hopefully illustrative. Suppose you have a stream of fixed sized, an ideal hash function, and from these you produce a distinct value estimate using the KMV algorithm. Now suppose that for some unlucky reason, one bit from your hash function is stuck; it’s always a zero or a one, but the other 31 bits are free of this curse.

Biased hash schematic

There’s nothing to stop you from computing a distinct value estimate using this janky hash with KMV, but your intuition suggests that it shouldn’t be very good. We went through this exact process with various choices of k, using a random number generator to simulate a perfect hash function.

Before we look at the data, let’s think about what we should expect. From the perspective of KMV, it shouldn’t make a whole lot of difference if your kth smallest element is odd or even (for instance, in a case where the lowest order bit always/never set, respectively). It does, however, make a difference if you’re actually incapable of seeing values smaller than 231, which is what happens when the highest order bit is always set. Thus, in both the 0-biasing and 1-biasing cases, we should expect that higher order bits have a much more dramatic effect on error than lower order bits.

Error from setting bits in KMV

Notice how the performance degradation follows two different patterns. When we are fixing bits as ones, the observed error increases fairly smoothly, and tends to result in under estimates. In contrast, setting bits to zeros results in no change until the error increases producing catastrophic over estimates. Additionally, larger values of k have protective effects against these biases.

A Somewhat Less Simple Error Model

Now that we have some intuition for the problem, let’s get a little more subtle. Instead of always setting the nth bit as a 0 or 1, let’s add a probabilistic element. We’ll do the same experiment as before, except we will now fix the nth bit with probability p. Thus, when p = 0 we have a perfectly well behaved KMV, and when p = 1, we have the experiment we just finished discussing. In the following diagram, each tile represents the average error across several experiments in which a stream of 1,000,000 unique elements was fed to a KMV sketch (k = 1024) which was rigged to modify the nth bit with probability p.

Heatmap of KMV error

Many of the same lessons can be seen here — high order bits matter more, downward biasing degrades performance sharply, upward biasing degrades more smoothly. Additionally, as we’d expect, within a given bit, more bias means more error.

Send in the Hash Functions

All of the experiments to this point have involved using a random number generator instead of hashing real data. I think it’s time that we took a look at what happens when we drop in a few real hash functions with real data. For the following experiments, I’m using four 32-bit hashes — Murmur3, SDBM, Arash Partow’s hash, and one of the old Donald Knuth hashes. You may recall these from our series on choosing a good hash function (although 64-bit versions were used there). I chose four text corpuses:

  • Romeo and Juliet, stripped of all punctuation and converted to lower case (3794 words)
  • /usr/share/dict/words (99171 words)
  • 1,000,000 random 12 character long strings, each sharing the same suffix: “123456”
  • 1,000,000 random 12 character long strings, each sharing the same prefix: “123456”

Using formulas from this paper, we can compute the relative error that 99% of KMV estimates should theoretically fall within. This turns out to depend on k and the stream size.

To make these pictures, I chose random values of k within each hash/document pair at which I evaluate the cardinality estimate and compute the relative error. The lines are linear interpolations between sampled points and are shown solely for clarity. The y-axis scale is adjusted on a per-picture basis to best display the theoretical envelope within which we expect our errors to lie.

Now that we’ve gotten through all the necessary preamble, let’s take a look at the results!

KMV error for Romeo and Juliet

One picture in and we’ve already learned a lesson: choice of hash function seriously matters! SDBM and DEK cause the algorithm to perform well below its capabilities. DEK’s error is actually off the charts for most of this graph, which is why it does not appear until k > 3,000.

KMV error for /usr/bin/dict/words

On a bigger corpus with tighter theoretical error bounds, Murmur3 and AP are still doing quite well. Do note, however, that AP dips outside the envelope for a while at k = 70,000 or so.

KMV error for suffixKMV error for shared-prefix strings

With the random strings, SDBM performs much better than it did on English words. DEK, however, is still hopeless. It’s a little tough to see on these pictures, but at high k, AP starts to fall off the wagon, and even Murmur3 dips outside the envelope, though not beyond what we’d expect, statistically speaking. Honestly, I was hoping for some fireworks here, but they didn’t materialize. I was wondering if we might see some hashes break on one version of these strings, and do fine on the other due to the location of the varying key bits (high order/low order). Sadly, that didn’t happen, but a negative result is a result none the less.

To summarize these, I made the following table, which shows us the percentage of time that an one of the samples falls outside the theoretical envelope. In this view, Murmur3’s superiority is clear.

Romeo and Juliet 0.00% 100.00% 0.00% 61.54%
10.76% 100.00% 0.00% 68.46%
Common Suffix 7.22% 99.11% 1.10% 0.27%
Common Prefix 3.33% 100.00% 0.22% 0.0001%


KMV is a very nice little algorithm that is incredibly simple to understand, implement, and use. That said, if you’re going to make use of it, you really do need to practice some due diligence when choosing your hash function. With packages like smhasher available, trying out multiple hash functions is a cinch, and a little legwork at the start of a project can save you from confusion and despair later on!

Sketch of the Day: K-Minimum Values


We’ve been talking about probabilistic distinct value counting with sketches (DV sketches) for a while now and have had some fun experiences implementing them into our production environment. In this post I want to talk about a DV sketch that is very intuitive and easy to implement, the K-minimum Values sketch (KMV). While KMV sketches are relatively lightweight and accurate, they are not the best of breed when it comes to DV counting. They are useful in two ways to me though, for exposition and multi-set operations.


KMV seems to have been first introduced in 2002 by Ziv Bar-Yossef et. al. in the great paper Counting distinct elements in a data stream. In this paper they talk about improving on the basic intuition by the seminal DV sketch papers of Flajolet and Martin and Alon, Matias, and Szegedy (AMS) (AMS put some formality around the frequency moment problems, bounds of algorithms etc.) Flajolet and Martin’s paper is in turn based upon work from Morris 1978 (looking for streaks of right-most zeroes i.e. the predecessor to LogLog and HyperLogLog). These are fun to read (although they admittedly get pretty mathy) and it’s cool to see the progression of knowledge, accuracy, and efficiency as these guys do their work. You can almost imagine the fist fights that happen during their meet-ups! The final detailed work on KMV is by Beyer et. al. in On Synopses for Distinct-Value Estimation Under Multiset Operations.

How it works

The intuition behind KMV is straightforward. Supposing you have a good hash function, i.e. hash values are evenly distributed over the hash space (I will normalize the hash space output to [0-1] for the rest of this), then you could estimate the number of distinct values you have seen by knowing the average spacing between values in the hash space. If I see 10 distinct values, I would expect them on average to be spaced about 1/10th apart from each other. We could do this cheaply by keeping track of, say, the smallest value you have ever seen. If the values are indeed uniformly distributed and provided you’ve thrown a decent amount of data through it, you could guess that the smallest value you have seen is a decent estimate of the average spacing of hash values in your space.

Of course, this doesn’t have a lot of “nice” properties. Taking only one value opens you up to a ton of variance and you are fairly dependent on the “goodness” of your hash. In order to improve upon this Bar-Yossef suggests keeping the k smallest values you have ever seen around. The algorithm becomes:

Initialize KMV with first k values
for all h(n):
     if h(n) < max(KMV):
          insert h(n) into KMV set
          remove largest value from KMV

     return: (k-1)/max(KMV)

For a KMV sketch of size k=3, graphically you have:

A very straightforward approach. Note that the “-1” in the numerator comes from a bias correction in the estimate. You’re going to have to read the paper for that. So, the size of the sketch is basically k 64bit values large. Click below to run a KMV simulation:

Click above to run the KMV simulation

Set Operations

Performing set operations with KMV’s is also incredibly straightforward. The intuition around unions is that there is no difference between combining 2 KMV sketches and keeping the k minimum values in both versus just keeping one to start with, so unions are “lossless”. To perform union, you merely take 2 sketches and combine their values and keep the k smallest ones (if the 2 sketches are of different sizes, k and k’, then you keep the min(k,k’) values in order to keep the lowest resolution).

     k = min( |A|, |B|)
     return: min_k( A U B )

For intersections you use the KMV to estimate the Jaccard coefficient for the 2 (or n) sets. Basically, you treat the 2 KMV sketches for each set as a random uniform sample and intersect these to estimate Jaccard. So, you assemble the k minimum values of the two sets (as you did in union above), and intersect this result with the original sketches to obtain an estimate of the overlap of the 2 sets. The steps are:

     L = UnionSet(A,B)  # the set this time, not just the cardinality
     k = min( |A|, |B|)
     K = | L ∩ A ∩ B |
     return: K/k * Cardinality(L)

One of the nice features of KMV which is different than say HyperLogLog, is that you can take n-way intersections by extending the algorithm above. To do this with HyperLogLog you actually need to compute the n-way algebra for set intersection i.e.

|A ∩ B| = |A| + |B| - |A U B|

However, in our experience of using KMV for set operations on Zipfian data, KMV’s still don’t perform as well HyperLogLog sketches for computing n-way intersections using the same amount of memory.

Expansion to Multisets

One of the nice features of KMV sketches is their expansion to supporting multiset operations, dubbed the AKMV sketch. This is great if you are using them for document representations and want to support document similarity operations like tf-idf (or any other multiset operation). In order to expand the basic KMV structure to support multisets (described here) you just add a counter on top of the values you are storing. In this way you get a decent sample of the counts of things in the stream/document to use for multiset operations. Most other DV sketches, HyperLogLog in particular, don’t support these types of queries.

To see how well this might work in practice, I took a look at some simple tf-idf similarity against the 20 news groups data set. This data set contains about 1000 news group emails on various topics such as atheism and motorcycles (woo!). For each article I constructed an AKMV sketch of the words in it and used this representation as the basis for tf-idf.  I cleaned up the data marginally by limiting my analysis to the 5000 most common words in the corpus (as seems to be the norm) and only considered alpahnumeric “words”.   Additionally, I cherry picked only a few newsgroups from the set that showed “nice” separation in the SVD.  You can think of the documents looking a bit like this where the red dots are the entries in the AKMV and the green dots are not (as above):

Once I created the tf-idf matrix, I SVD-ed it and plotted each newsgroup against the second and third singular vectors (the first vector in this case contained mostly information about the mean of the document vectors and contained little real information for classification).  The intermediate singular vectors for differing k were projected onto the actual singular vectors from the complete matrix (k = Inf).  Running through increasing k, the newsgroups look like this (click on the graphic to restart the animation):

Click image to restart animation

You can see the structure start to appear relatively quickly for small k and you can also see how some of the articles “stick” to their final spots due to them having less than k words.  Clearly you would have to do more work and testing if you wanted to implement something like this in a real classifier or search engine but it seems to be a promising approach.

Here is the same thing for a corpus composed of 23 articles about the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes divorce and 20 articles about the Higgs boson.

Click image to restart animation

Using document sketches as a basis for a recommender system/search engine or any other application that requires similarity metrics seems like a promising avenue.  It would be very interesting indeed to run some real tests of precision/recall and memory footprint for sketch based recommenders/classifiers against other more standard approaches.


I make no claims about having built a classifier of any sort here. A lot of work and decisions would be necessary to move from these ideas to a useful classification scheme in a real environment. I was interested in how much of the flavor of a document would be retained in an AKMV sketch. Based on the above results, I think that the answer is “quite a bit,” even for modest values of k. I don’t think it would be out of the question to try to build a system that allowed you to compute similarities or apply classification tools after the sampling process inherent in the construction of these sketches.


An interesting thing to notice is that as your DV count gets larger, your max value of the k items is getting smaller. What this means is a simple compression algorithm that works is to just throw away the higher order unused bits of all the k values. Oddly, as the DV count gets larger your KMV will get smaller without losing accuracy.


There are many DV sketches in the world and KMV is one of the most interesting due to how easy it is to comprehend and implement. I particularly enjoy using KMV as a pedagogical tool and a solid jumping off point for DV sketching. The fact that KMV is so straightforward makes it stand out in a world of more confusing math and complicated sketching algorithms. In the right context it very well could be the right solution for your sketching needs, especially given the multiset support.