Dynamic Time Warping for Sequence Comparison

Problem: Write a program that compares two sequences of differing lengths for similarity.

Solution: (In Python)

import math

def dynamicTimeWarp(seqA, seqB, d = lambda x,y: abs(x-y)):
    # create the cost matrix
    numRows, numCols = len(seqA), len(seqB)
    cost = [[0 for _ in range(numCols)] for _ in range(numRows)]

    # initialize the first row and column
    cost[0][0] = d(seqA[0], seqB[0])
    for i in xrange(1, numRows):
        cost[i][0] = cost[i-1][0] + d(seqA[i], seqB[0])

    for j in xrange(1, numCols):
        cost[0][j] = cost[0][j-1] + d(seqA[0], seqB[j])

    # fill in the rest of the matrix
    for i in xrange(1, numRows):
        for j in xrange(1, numCols):
            choices = cost[i-1][j], cost[i][j-1], cost[i-1][j-1]
            cost[i][j] = min(choices) + d(seqA[i], seqB[j])

    for row in cost:
       for entry in row:
          print "%03d" % entry,
       print ""
    return cost[-1][-1]

DiscussionComparing sequences of numbers can be tricky business. The simplest way to do so is simply component-wise. However, this will often disregard more abstract features of a sequence that we intuitively understand as “shape.”

For example, consider the following two sequences.

0 0 0 3 6 13 25 22 7 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 5 12 24 23 8 3 1 0 0 0 0 0

They both have the same characteristics — a bump of height roughly 25 and length 8 — but comparing the two sequences entrywise would imply they are not similar. According to the standard Euclidean norm, they are 52 units apart. For motivation, according to the dynamic time warping function above, they are a mere 7 units apart. Indeed, if the two bumps consisted of the same numbers, the dynamic time warp distance between the entire sequences would be zero.

These kinds of sequences show up in many applications. For instance, in speech recognition software one often has many samples of the a single person speaking, but there is a difference in the instant during the sample at which the person begins speaking. Similarly, the rate at which the person speaks may be slightly different. In either event, we want the computed “distance” between two such samples to be small. That is, we’re looking for a measurement which is time-insensitive both in scaling and in position. Historically, the dynamic time warping solution was designed in 1978 to solve this problem.

The idea is similar to the Levenshtein metric we implemented for “edit distance” measurements in our Metrics on Words post. Instead of inserting or deleting sequence elements, we may optionally “pause” our usual elementwise comparison on one sequence while continuing on the other. The trick is in deciding whether to “pause,” and when to switch the “pausing” from one sequence to the other; this will require a dynamic program (as did the Levenshtein metric).

In order to compare two sequences, one needs to have some notion of a local comparison. That is, we need to be able to compare any entry from one sequence to any entry in the other. While there are many such options that depend on the data type used in the sequence, we will use the following simple numeric metric:

\displaystyle d(x,y) = |x-y|

This is just the Euclidean metric in \mathbb{R}. More generally, this assumes that two numbers are similar when they are close together (and this is in fact an important assumption; not all number systems are like this).

Now given two sequences a_i, b_j, we can compare them by comparing their local distance for a specially chosen set of indices given by m_k for a_i and n_k for b_j. That is, the dynamic time warping distance will end up being the quantity:

\displaystyle C(a_i, b_j) = \sum_{k=0}^{M} d(a_{m_k}, b_{n_k})

Of course, we should constrain the indices m_k, n_k so that the result is reasonable. A good way to do that is to describe the conditions we want it to satisfy, and then figure out how to compute such indices. In particular, let us assume that a_i has length M, b_j has length N. Then we have the following definition.

Definition: A warping path for a_i, b_j is a pair of sequences (m_k, n_k), both of some length L, satisfying the following conditions:

  1. 1 \leq m_k \leq M and 1 \leq n_k \leq N for all k.
  2. The sequences have endpoints (m_1, n_1) = (1,1), (m_L, n_L) = (M, N)
  3. The seqences m_k, n_k are monotonically increasing.
  4. (m_k - m_{k-1}, n_k - n_{k-1}) must be one of (1,0), (0,1), (1,1).

The first condition is obvious, or else the m_k, n_k could not be indexing a_i, b_j. The second condition ensures that we use all of the information in both sequences in our comparison. The third condition implies that we cannot “step backward” in time as we compare local sequence entries. We wonder offhand if anything interesting could be salvaged from the mess that would ensue if one left this condition out. And the fourth condition allows the index of one sequence to be stopped while the other continues. This condition creates the “time warping” effect, that some parts of the sequence can be squeezed or stretched in comparison with the other sequence.

We also note as an aside that the fourth condition listed implies the third.

Of course there are many valid warping paths for any two sequences, but we need to pick one which has our desired feature. That is, it minimizes the sum of the local comparisons (the formula for C(a_i, b_j) above). We denote this optimal value as DTW(a_i, b_j).

The fourth condition in the list above should give it away that to compute the optimal path requires a dynamic program. Specifically, the optimal path can be computed by solving the three sub-problems of finding the optimal warping path for

\displaystyle (a_{1 \dots M-1}, b_{1 \dots N}), (a_{1 \dots M}, b_{1 \dots N-1}), \textup{ and } (a_{1 \dots M-1}, b_{1 \dots N-1})

The clueless reader should refer to this blog’s primer on Python and dynamic programming. In any event, the program implementing this dynamic program is given in the solution above.

A visualization of the dynamic time warp cost matrix for two sequences. The algorithm attempts to find the least expensive path from the bottom left to the top right, where the darker regions correspond to low local cost, and the lighter regions to high local cost. The arrows point in the forward direction along each sequence, showing the monotonicity requirement of an optimal warping path.

The applications of this technique certainly go beyond speech recognition. Dynamic time warping can essentially be used to compare any data which can be represented as one-dimensional sequences. This includes video, graphics, financial data, and plenty of others.

We may also play around with which metric is used in the algorithm. When the elements of the lists are themselves points in Euclidean space, you can swap out the standard Euclidean metric with metrics like the Manhattan metric, the maximum metric, the discrete metric, or your mother’s favorite L^p norm.

While we use a metric for elementwise comparisons in the algorithm above, the reader must note that the dynamic time warping distance is not a metricIn fact, it’s quite far from a metric. The casual reader can easily come up with an example of two non-identical sequences x, y for which DTW(x,y) = 0, hence denying positive-definiteness. The more intrepid reader will come up with three sequences which give a counterexample to satisfy the triangle inequality (hint: using the discrete metric as the local comparison metric makes things easier).

In fact, the failure to satisfy positive-definiteness and the triangle inequality means that the dynamic time warping “distance” is not even a semimetric. To be completely pedantic, it would fit in as a symmetric premetric. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t get the benefits of geometry or topology to analyze dynamic time warping as a characteristic feature of the space of all numeric sequences. In any event, it’s still proven to be useful in applications, so it belongs here in the program gallery.


22 thoughts on “Dynamic Time Warping for Sequence Comparison

  1. I’ve been looking for more information on time-warping in sequences. I’ve been working on a problem where I have two sequences that I hypothesized are identical, just measured differently (the sequences arise out of dynamic optimization in discreet time, and I’d like to be able to show that the differences in the two arise out of varying periodicity–that is, time in one of the models is warped relative to the other). Are there any other sources where I can learn more about this?


  2. Hello all,

    I got it as nice and helpful post. I have been searching about dtw algorithm for a while. I have already implemented an application on android that will authenticate smart phone users. I am doing the experiment by recording huge amount of data from participants. This data is saved to computer storage. I want to validate the application by comparing similarity/difference of one series of data with others. different users data has stored in different series. So, for the comparison i need to use dtw similarity algorithm. I tried to see some dtw algorithms, but I couldn’t find even one that uses stored data as an input for the comparison. Please help me by providing clue how to do it. I prefer to do it with java. To clarify it, the algorithm should compare series of data stored in a file. That means, it must accept a file as an input and compares sequences/series of data in the file.

    I will be waiting your reply soon. Thanks a lot in advance!.


    • First the data has to be converted to a numeric representation, and second dtw is supposed to work on ordered data. If your data is simply arbitrary user information, and doesn’t have a specific ordering (say, with respect to time) then this algorithm doesn’t apply. Finally, you also have to accept the time warping in the context of your problem. I’m sure there are many instances where even if the data is ordered, you still may not want to time warp it.


      • Thanks a lot for the reply.
        It is numeric representation i.e. double. and it is also ordered data with respect to time. can you suggest me a java code for dtw algorithm that could work for this type of data? thanks


      • You should just be able to translate the above Python program into Java. There’s very little that’s inherently Pythonic about it, so it would be a straightforward programming exercise.


  3. Hello j2kun,
    I have one question. I have computed global distance of the warping paths. i.e
    D(i,j) = min[D(i-1, j-1), D(i, j-1), D(i-1, j)] + d(i,j)

    This global distance will be used to compare the similarity of the two sequences. The confusion is how can we compare by using this value? If this value is close to 0, they are similar, right? I don’t know the intuition behind this. I mean what is the threshold to compare with D to decide whether the sequences are similar or not? Thanks in advance sir.


    • You’re right in that smaller values imply the two sequences are more similar, but there is no hard line between what is similar and what is not. This is the unfortunate nature of applied mathematics; the line is different for every application. I suggest you take a random sample of values from your application domain, and look at their distances under D to see what typical values are. Then you can decide, either empirically or with some statistical magic, where that line is.


  4. I’ve just recently found your blog, and as an experienced programmer interested in adapting my knowledge to the mathematical terminology (so that I can then go on to learn more mathematics) I have to thank you greatly! This blog is wonderful.

    I wanted to mention, with regards to this post, that this algorithm is often used in bioinformatics, though I have never heard it referred to as ‘time warping’. It is useful for determining if two genetic sequences are similar given certain types of mutations. There are also many elaborations on this algorithm which enable you to actually locate the similar portions (walking backwards through the cost matrix essentially) and find similarities even between sequences from different sides of a strand (where you get the complements of the bases). Even though I already knew the algorithm and what it is used for, your post was very helpful in helping me learn some more notation and terminology which I’m finding to be the biggest barrier to learning more mathematics.


    • Yes, for a long time I thought this algorithm was just folk lore. I guess someone picked a name for it at some point. Thanks for reading! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what it’s like to learn mathematics as a programmer, where the difficulties are and such. If you are willing, drop me an email: jkun2@uic.edu


  5. In your definition of warping path, you say in point 3 that a(k),b(k) is monotonically increasing, and in point 4 that a(k)-a(k-1) can be 0 (same for b). In this case, should the sequences really be monotonically increasing? or just increasing?


    • Sorry, I misunderstood. What I was referring to is the difference between strictly monotonically and just monotonically increasing sequences. And, indeed, the requirements are fulfilled for just monotonically increasing sequences.


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