One size does not fit all: Customizing MCMC methods for hierarchical models using NIMBLE

Lauren C. Ponisio, Perry de Valpine, Nicholas Michaud, Daniel Turek

Ecology and Evolution
February 14, 2020

Abstract: Improved efficiency of Markov chain Monte Carlo facilitates all aspects of statistical analysis with Bayesian hierarchical models. Identifying strategies to improve MCMC performance is becoming increasingly crucial as the complexity of models, and the run times to fit them, increases. We evaluate different strategies for improving MCMC efficiency using the open‐source software NIMBLE (R package nimble) using common ecological models of species occurrence and abundance as examples. We ask how MCMC efficiency depends on model formulation, model size, data, and sampling strategy. For multiseason and/or multispecies occupancy models and for N‐mixture models, we compare the efficiency of sampling discrete latent states vs. integrating over them, including more vs. fewer hierarchical model components, and univariate vs. block‐sampling methods. We include the common MCMC tool JAGS in comparisons. For simple models, there is little practical difference between computational approaches. As model complexity increases, there are strong interactions between model formulation and sampling strategy on MCMC efficiency. There is no one‐size‐fits‐all best strategy, but rather problem‐specific best strategies related to model structure and type. In all but the simplest cases, NIMBLE's default or customized performance achieves much higher efficiency than JAGS. In the two most complex examples, NIMBLE was 10–12 times more efficient than JAGS. We find NIMBLE is a valuable tool for many ecologists utilizing Bayesian inference, particularly for complex models where JAGS is prohibitively slow. Our results highlight the need for more guidelines and customizable approaches to fit hierarchical models to ensure practitioners can make the most of occupancy and other hierarchical models. By implementing model‐generic MCMC procedures in open‐source software, including the NIMBLE extensions for integrating over latent states (implemented in the R package nimbleEcology), we have made progress toward this aim.

Featured Fellows

Lauren Ponisio

Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

Perry de Valpine

Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; UC Berkeley
Faculty Affiliate

Daniel Turek

Statistics, ESPM
BIDS Alum - Data Science Fellow