Introduction to MCMC

A simple Poisson regression example

Sebastian Höhna

Last modified on April 8, 2020

Exercise: Poisson Regression Model for Airline Fatalities

This exercise will demonstrate how to approximate the posterior distribution of some parameters using a simple Metropolis algorithm. The focus here lies in the Metropolis algorithm, Bayesian inference, and model specification—but not in the model or the data. After completing this computer exercise, you should be familiar with the basic Metropolis algorithm, analyzing output generated from a MCMC algorithm, and performing standard Bayesian inference.

Model and Data

We will use the data example from Gelman et al. (2003). A summary is given in .

Year 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985
Fatalities 24 25 31 31 22 21 26 20 16 22
Airline fatalities from 1976 to 1985. Reproduced from Gelman et al. (2003) [Table 2.2 on p. 69].

These data can be loaded into RevBayes by typing:

observed_fatalities <- v(24,25,31,31,22,21,26,20,16,22)

The model is a Poisson regression model with parameters $\alpha$ and $\beta$

\[y \sim \text{Poisson}(\exp(\alpha+\beta*x))\]

where $y$ is the number of fatal accidents in year $x$. For simplicity, we choose uniform priors for $\alpha$ and $\beta$.

\[\begin{aligned} \alpha & \sim \text{Uniform}(-10,10)\\ \beta & \sim \text{Uniform}(-10,10)\end{aligned}\]

The probability density can be computed in RevBayes for a single year by



Metropolis Algorithm

The source file for this sub-exercise ‘airline_fatalities_part1.Rev‘.

Let us construct a Metropolis algorithm that simulates from the posterior distribution $P(\alpha,\beta|y)$. We will construct this algorithm explicitly, without using the high-level functions existing in RevBayes to perform MCMC. In the next section, we will repeat the same analysis, this time using the high-level functions. (More background on MCMC is provided in the Introduction to Markov Chain Monte Carlo Algorithms tutorial.)

For simplicity of the calculations you can “normalize” the years, e.g.

x <- 1976:1985 - mean(1976:1985)

A common proposal distribution for $\alpha^{\prime} \sim P(\alpha[i-1])$ is the normal distribution with mean $\mu = \alpha[i-1]$ and standard deviation $\sigma = \delta_\alpha$:

alpha_prime <- rnorm(1,alpha[i-1],delta_alpha)

A similar distribution should be used for $\beta^{\prime}$.

delta_alpha <- 1.0
delta_beta <- 1.0

After you look at the output of the MCMC (later), play around to find appropriate values for $\delta_{\alpha}$ and $\delta_{\beta}$.

Now we need to set starting values for the MCMC algorithm. Usually, these are drawn from the prior distribution, but sometimes if the prior is very uninformative, then these parameter values result in a likelihood of 0.0 (or log-likelihood of -Inf).

alpha[1] <- -0.01     # you can also use runif(-1.0,1.0)
beta[1] <- -0.01      # you can also use runif(-1.0,1.0)

Next, create some output for our MCMC algorithm. The output will be written into a file that can be read into Ror Tracer (Rambaut and Drummond 2011).

# create a file output

Note that we need a first iteration with value 0 so that Tracer can load in this file.

Finally, we set up a ‘for‘ loop over each iteration of the MCMC.

for (i in 2:10000) {

Within the ‘for‘ loop we propose new parameter values.

    alpha_prime <- rnorm(1,alpha[i-1],delta_alpha)[1]
    beta_prime <- rnorm(1,beta[i-1],delta_beta)[1]

For the newly proposed parameter values we compute the prior ratio. In this case we know that the prior ratio is 0.0 as long as the new parameters are within the limits.

    ln_prior_ratio <- dunif(alpha_prime,-10.0,10.0,log=TRUE) + dunif(beta_prime,-10.0,10.0,log=TRUE) - dunif(alpha[i-1],-10.0,10.0,log=TRUE) - dunif(beta[i-1],-10.0,10.0,log=TRUE)

Similarly, we compute the likelihood ratio for each observation.

    ln_likelihood_ratio <- 0
    for (j in 1:x.size() ) {
       lambda_prime <- exp( alpha_prime + beta_prime * x[j] )
       lambda <- exp( alpha[i-1] + beta[i-1] * x[j] )
       ln_likelihood_ratio += dpoisson(observed_fatalities[j],lambda_prime) - dpoisson(observed_fatalities[j],lambda)
    ratio <- ln_prior_ratio + ln_likelihood_ratio

And finally we accept or reject the newly proposed parameter values with probability ‘ratio‘.

    if ( ln(runif(1)[1]) < ratio) {
       alpha[i] <- alpha_prime
       beta[i] <- beta_prime
    } else {
       alpha[i] <- alpha[i-1]
       beta[i] <- beta[i-1]

Then we log the current parameter values to the file by appending the file.

    # output to a log-file

As a quick summary you can compute the posterior mean of the parameters.


You can also load the file into Ror Tracer to analyze the output.

In this section of the first exercise we wrote our own little Metropolis algorithm in Rev. This becomes very cumbersome, difficult and slow if we’ld need to do this for every model. Here we wanted to show you only the basic principle of any MCMC algorithm. In the next section we will use the built-in MCMC algorithm of RevBayes.

MCMC analysis using the built-in algorithm in RevBayes

Before starting with this new approach it would be good if you either start a new RevBayes session or clear all previous variables using the ‘clear‘ function. Currently we may have some minor memory problems and if you get stuck it may help to restart RevBayes.

We start by loading in the data to RevBayes.

observed_fatalities <- v(24,25,31,31,22,21,26,20,16,22)
x <- 1976:1985 - mean(1976:1985)

Then we create the parameters with their prior distributions.

alpha ~ dnUnif(-10,10) 
beta ~ dnUnif(-10,10)

It may be good to set some reasonable starting values especially if you choose a very uninformative prior distribution. If by chance you had starting values that gave a likelihood of -Inf, then RevBayes will try several times to propose new starting values drawn from the prior distribution.

# let us use reasonable starting value

Our next step is to set up the moves. Moves are algorithms that propose new values and know how to reset the values if the proposals are rejected. We use the same sliding window move as we implemented above by ourselves.

mi <- 0
moves[mi++] = mvSlide(alpha)
moves[mi++] = mvSlide(beta)

Then we set up the model. This means we create a stochastic variable for each observation and clamp its value with the observed data.

for (i in 1:x.size() ) {
    lambda[i] := exp( alpha + beta * x[i] )
    y[i] ~ dnPoisson(lambda[i])

We can now create the model by pulling up the model graph from any variable that is connected to our model graph.

mymodel = model( alpha )

We also need some monitors that report the current values during the MCMC run. We create two monitors, one printing all numeric non-constant variables to a file and one printing some information to the screen.

monitors[1] = mnModel(filename="output/airline_fatalities.log",printgen=10, separator = "	")
monitors[2] = mnScreen(printgen=10, alpha, beta)

Finally we create an MCMC object. The MCMC object takes in a model object, the vector of monitors and the vector of moves.

mymcmc = mcmc(mymodel, monitors, moves)

On the MCMC object we call its member method ‘run‘ to run the MCMC.

And now we are done

Posterior Distribution of $\alpha$ and $\beta$

Exercise: Poisson Regression Model for Coal-mine Accidents

We will analyze a dataset coal-mine accidents. The values are the dates of major (more than 10 casualties) coal-mining disasters in the UK from 1851 to 1962.

A model for disasters

A common model for the number of events that occur over a period of time is a Poisson process, in which the numbers of events in disjoint time-intervals are independent and Poisson-distributed. We will discretize and look at the yearly number of accidents.

In order to take into account the possible change of rate, we will allow for different rates before and after year $\theta$, where $\theta$ is unknown to us. Thus, the observation distribution of our model is $y_t \sim Poisson(\lambda_t)$ with $t = 1851,\ldots,1962$ and \(\begin{aligned} \lambda_t = & \begin{cases} \beta & \mbox{if } t < \theta \\ \gamma & \mbox{if } t \geq \theta \end{cases}\end{aligned}\) Thus, the rate $\lambda_t$ is defined by three unknown parameters: $\beta$, $\gamma$ and $\theta$. A hierarchical choice of priors is given by \(\begin{aligned} \eta & \sim Gamma(10.0;20.0) \\ \beta & \sim Gamma(2.0;\eta) \\ \gamma & \sim Gamma(2.0;\eta) \\ \theta & \sim Uniform(1852,\ldots,1962)\end{aligned}\) which brings an additional parameter $\eta$ in the model. For $\theta$ we have used a uniform prior over the years, but excluded year 1851 in order to make sure at least one year has rate $\beta$. The hierarchical prior carries the belief that $\beta$ and $\gamma$ are somewhat similar in size, since they both depend on $\eta$.

The model in Rev

We start as usual by loading in the data.

observed_fatalities <-  v(4, 5, 4, 1, 0, 4, 3, 4, 0, 6, 3, 3, 4, 0, 2, 6, 3, 3, 5, 4, 5, 3, 1, 4, 4, 1, 5, 5, 3, 4, 2, 5, 2, 2, 3, 4, 2, 1, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 3, 1, 0, 3, 2, 2, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 2, 1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 3, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 0, 0, 0, 1, 4, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1)
year <- 1851:1962

In Rev we specify this prior choice by

eta ~ dnGamma(10.0,20.0)
beta ~ dnGamma(2.0,eta)
gamma ~ dnGamma(2.0,eta)
theta ~ dnUnif(1852.0,1962.0)

Then we select moves for each parameter. For the rate parameters — which are defined only on the positive real line — we choose a scaling move. Only for ‘theta‘ we choose the sliding window proposal.

mi <- 0
moves[mi++] = mvScale(eta)
moves[mi++] = mvScale(beta)
moves[mi++] = mvScale(gamma)
moves[mi++] = mvSlide(theta)

Then, we set up the model by computing the conditional rate of the Poisson distribution, creating random variables for each observation and attaching (clamping) data to the variables.

for (i in 1:year.size() ) {
    rate[i] := ifelse(theta > year[i], beta, gamma)
    y[i] ~ dnPoisson(rate[i])

Finally, we create the model object from the variables, add some monitors and run the MCMC algorithm.

mymodel = model( theta )

monitors[1] = mnModel(filename="output/coal_accidents.log",printgen=10, separator = "	")
monitors[2] = mnScreen(printgen=10, eta, lambda, gamma, theta)

mymcmc = mcmc(mymodel, monitors, moves)

Batch Mode

If you wish to run this exercise in batch mode, the files are provided for you.

You can carry out these batch commands by providing the file name when you execute the ‘rb‘ binary in your unix terminal (this will overwrite all of your existing run files).

rb RevBayes_scripts airline_fatalities_part1.Rev
rb RevBayes_scripts airline_fatalities_part2.Rev
rb RevBayes_scripts coalmine_accidents.Rev
  1. Gelman A., Carlin J.B., Stern H.S., Rubin D.B. 2003. Bayesian Data Analysis. Chapman & Hall/CRC.
  2. Rambaut A., Drummond A.J. 2011. Tracer v1.5. .