Machine learning (ML) methods, such as artificial neural networks (ANN), k
-nearest neighbors (k
NN), random forests (RF), support vector machines (SVM), and boosted decision trees (DTs), may offer stronger predictive performance than more traditional, parametric methods, such as linear regression, multiple linear regression, and logistic regression (LR), for specific mapping and modeling tasks. However, this increased performance is often accompanied by increased model complexity and decreased interpretability, resulting in critiques of their “black box” nature, which highlights the need for algorithms that can offer both strong predictive performance and interpretability. This is especially true when the global model and predictions for specific data points need to be explainable in order for the model to be of use. Explainable boosting machines (EBM), an augmentation and refinement of generalize additive models (GAMs), has been proposed as an empirical modeling method that offers both interpretable results and strong predictive performance. The trained model can be graphically summarized as a set of functions relating each predictor variable to the dependent variable along with heat maps representing interactions between selected pairs of predictor variables. In this study, we assess EBMs for predicting the likelihood or probability of slope failure occurrence based on digital terrain characteristics in four separate Major Land Resource Areas (MLRAs) in the state of West Virginia, USA and compare the results to those obtained with LR, k
NN, RF, and SVM. EBM provided predictive accuracies comparable to RF and SVM and better than LR and k
NN. The generated functions and visualizations for each predictor variable and included interactions between pairs of predictor variables, estimation of variable importance based on average mean absolute scores, and provided scores for each predictor variable for new predictions add interpretability, but additional work is needed to quantify how these outputs may be impacted by variable correlation, inclusion of interaction terms, and large feature spaces. Further exploration of EBM is merited for geohazard mapping and modeling in particular and spatial predictive mapping and modeling in general, especially when the value or use of the resulting predictions would be greatly enhanced by improved interpretability globally and availability of prediction explanations at each cell or aggregating unit within the mapped or modeled extent.
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