Feature Attributions for Classification and Regression


Vertex Explainable AI integrates feature attributions into Vertex AI. This page provides a brief conceptual overview of the feature attribution methods available with Vertex AI. For an in-depth technical discussion, refer to our AI Explanations Whitepaper.

Vertex Explainable AI helps you understand your model's outputs for classification and regression tasks. Vertex AI tells you how much each feature in the data contributed to the predicted result. You can then use this information to verify that the model is behaving as expected, recognize bias in your models, and get ideas for ways to improve your model and your training data. When you request predictions, you get predicted values as appropriate for your model. When you request explanations, you get the predictions along with feature attribution information.

Consider the following example: A deep neural network is trained to predict the duration of a bike ride, based on weather data and previous ride sharing data. If you request only predictions from this model, you get predicted durations of bike rides in number of minutes. If you request explanations, you get the predicted bike trip duration, along with an attribution score for each feature in your explanations request. The attribution scores show how much the feature affected the change in prediction value, relative to the baseline value that you specify. Choose a meaningful baseline that makes sense for your model - in this case, the median bike ride duration.

You can plot the feature attribution scores to see which features contributed most strongly to the resulting prediction:

A feature attribution chart for one predicted bike ride duration

Generate feature attributions

Feature attributions are displayed in Google Cloud console as feature importance. You can see model feature importance for the model overall, and local feature importance for both online and batch predictions.

To see the model feature importance, examine the evaluation metrics of your model.

To get online explanations, follow most of the same steps that you would to get online predictions. However, instead of sending a projects.locations.endpoints.predict request to the Vertex AI API, send a projects.locations.endpoints.explain request.

To get batch explanations, set the generateExplanation field to true when you create a batch prediction job.


If you inspect specific instances, and also aggregate feature attributions across your training dataset, you can get deeper insight into how your model works. Consider the following advantages:

  • Debugging models: Feature attributions can help detect issues in the data that standard model evaluation techniques would usually miss.

  • Optimizing models: You can identify and remove features that are less important, which can result in more efficient models.

Conceptual limitations

Consider the following limitations of feature attributions:

  • Feature attributions, including local feature importance for AutoML, are specific to individual predictions. Inspecting the feature attributions for an individual prediction may provide good insight, but the insight may not be generalizable to the entire class for that individual instance, or the entire model.

    To get more generalizable insight for AutoML models, refer to the model feature importance. To get more generalizable insight for other models, aggregate attributions over subsets over your dataset, or the entire dataset.

  • Although feature attributions can help with model debugging, they do not always indicate clearly whether an issue arises from the model or from the data that the model is trained on. Use your best judgment, and diagnose common data issues to narrow the space of potential causes.

  • Feature attributions are subject to similar adversarial attacks as predictions in complex models.

For more information about limitations, refer to the high-level limitations list and the AI Explanations Whitepaper.


Vertex AI provides feature attributions using Shapley Values, a cooperative game theory algorithm that assigns credit to each player in a game for a particular outcome. Applied to machine learning models, this means that each model feature is treated as a "player" in the game and credit is assigned in proportion to the outcome of a particular prediction. For structured data models, which are non-differentiable meta-ensembles of trees and neural networks, Vertex AI uses a sampling approximation of exact Shapley Values called Sampled Shapley.

For in-depth information on how the sampled Shapley method works, read the paper Bounding the Estimation Error of Sampling-based Shapley Value Approximation.

What's next

The following resources provide further useful educational material: