A fundamental way to describe an object is to specify its topology: how many pieces or holes it contains, whether or not it is connected, etc. In the real world, this might appear to be a lost cause, as data are both limited in extent and quantized in space and time, and topology is fundamentally an infinite-precision notion.

There are, however, a variety of ways to glean useful information about the topological properties of a manifold from a finite number of finite-precision points upon it. For example, one can analyze the properties of the point-set data - e.g., the number of components and holes, and their sizes - at a variety of different precisions, and then deduce the topology from the limiting behavior of those curves. One can exploit continuity to separate signals from different dynamical regimes, and one can compute the Conley index of a dataset in order to find and verify the existence of periodic orbits. The remainder of this document explains and demonstrates some of these ideas.

An *epsilon chain* is a
finite sequence of points x_0 ... x_N that are separated by distances
of epsilon or less: that is, |x_i - x_i+1| < epsilon. Two points are
*epsilon connected* if there is an epsilon chain joining them.
Any two points in an *epsilon-connected set* can be linked by an
epsilon chain. The set shown in the image below, for instance,
contains eight points:

For the purposes of this work, we define several fundamental
quantities: the number C(epsilon) and maximum diameter D(epsilon) of the epsilon-connected components in a set,
as well as the number I(epsilon) of epsilon-isolated points. (An
epsilon-isolated point is an epsilon-component consisting of a single
point.) We then compute all three quantities for a *range* of
epsilon values and deduce the topological properties of the underlying
set from their limiting behavior.

If the underlying set is connected, the behavior of C and D is
easy to understand. If epsilon is large, all points in the set are
epsilon-connected and thus it has one epsilon-component (C(epsilon)=1)
whose diameter D(epsilon) is the maximum diameter of the set. This
situation persists until epsilon shrinks to the *largest*
interpoint spacing, at which point C(epsilon) jumps to two and D(epsilon)
shrinks to the larger of the diameters of the two subsets, and so on.
When epsilon reaches the * smallest* interpoint spacing, every
point is a epsilon-connected component, C(epsilon) = I(epsilon) is the number
of points in the data set, and D(epsilon) is zero.

If the underlying set is a disconnected fractal, the behavior is similar, except that C and D exhibit a stair-step behavior with changing epsilon because of the scaling of the gaps in the data. When epsilon reaches the largest gap size in the middle-third Cantor set, for instance, C(epsilon) will double and D(epsilon) will shrink by 1/3; this scaling will repeat when epsilon reaches the next-smallest gap size, and so on.

This reasoning generalizes as follows. A compact set is

- Connected iff C(epsilon) = 1 for all epsilon > 0
- Perfect iff I(epsilon) = 0 for all epsilon > 0
- Totally disconnected iff D(epsilon) -> 0 as epsilon -> 0.

The results above hold for arbitrary compact sets; the next step is to work out a way to compute them for a finite set of points. Our solutions to this use standard constructions from discrete geometry:

- The Euclidean minimal spanning tree (MST): the tree of minimum total (Euclidean) branch length that spans the data. To construct the MST, one starts with any point and its nearest neighbor, adds the closest point, and repeats until all points are in the tree (Prim's algorithm).
- The nearest-neighbor graph (NNG): a directed graph that has an edge from A to B if B is the nearest neighbor of A. To construct the NNG, one starts with the MST and keeps the shortest MST edge emanating from each point.

Given these constructions, computing C, D, and I is easy: one simply counts edges. C(epsilon), for example, is one more than the number of MST edges that are longer than epsilon, and I(epsilon) is the the number of NNG edges that are longer than epsilon. Note that one has to count NNG edges with multiplicity, since A->B does not imply B->A. Note, too, that one only has to construct each graph once. All of the C and I information for different epsilons is captured in the edge lengths of the MST and NNG. D is somewhat harder; computing it involves tools from statistical data analysis called binary component trees or dendograms.

Here's an example of these MST-based connectedness techniques in
action. The object that we're studying here is the invariant set of a
particular *iterated function
system* called the Sierpinski triangle. This object, shown in
part (a) of the image below, happens to be connected. If we compute a Euclidean
minimal spanning tree of this point-set data, we get the structure
shown in part (b). Image (c) is a magnification of (b) that shows its
structural details.

Again, these results were derived simply by constructing a single MST and counting its edges.

For *totally disconnected, fractal* sets, like the one shown
below, the behavior of C, D, and I is completely different. In
contrast to the example above, a small change in epsilon can suddenly
resolve a large number of similar-size gaps and lumps.

For Cantor sets, there is actually more to say about the features of the C and D curves. Specifically, we can characterize the growth in C and D by a power law, C(epsilon) -> epsilon^(-gamma), and D(epsilon) -> epsilon^delta, as epsilon -> 0. The exponents gamma and delta are, respectively, the disconnectedness and discreteness indices, which are described in detail in this paper. They are closely related to the fractal box-counting dimension, d_B, via gamma <= d_B <= gamma/delta. For simple self-similar Cantor sets, it is often the case that the component diameters decrease at the same rate as the gap sizes, giving delta = 1, and gamma = d_B. Chapter 5 of Vanessa Robins's Ph.D. thesis, which is listed at the end of this page, derives, explains, and demonstrates these results; an associated journal paper is currently in the works, but proofs of the above results have been elusive because these topological quantities are not additive in the way that geometric quantities are, which means that you can't just generalise the exisiting fractal dimension results.

On a less formal note, these spanning tree constructions can be quite beautiful; minimal spanning trees of isosurfaces in sea surface vorticity, for instance, look remarkably like Miro drawings:

In summary, these techniques provide an effective way to deduce connectedness properties of different objects from a finite amount of finite-precision samples of those objects. See the papers listed at the end of this page for more details.

Connectedness and noise are related in an interesting way, and so the techniques described above have some practical applications to filtering noise out of data. In particular, these variable-resolution connectedness studies address the scale of the separation between neighboring points, and noise is often "larger than" data. In that it brings out this kind of scale separation, the MST and the associated calculation of isolated points allows pruning of noisy points.

More formally, perfect sets by definition contain no isolated points, and most dynamical systems that are of practical interest have attractors that are perfect sets, so any isolated points in data from such systems are likely to be spurious.

This is particularly useful because simple low-pass filtering of data from chaotic systems - "bleaching" - is a very bad idea; look in the xyz.lanl.gov nonlinear sciences p/reprint database for papers by J. Doyne Farmer if this doesn't make sense to you.

Below, to the left, is an experimentally measured trajectory of a chaotic pendulum. The bob angle was measured every several hundred milliseconds, and delay-coordinate embedding was used on this scalar data to reconstruct a diffeomorphic image of the attractor. The red points denote points that were altered by experimental error in the angle sensor. To the right is a close-up of the MST of this data set. Note how this construction makes the noisy points obvious: they are far from the rest of the trajectory, and in a transverse direction:

On the C(epsilon) and I(epsilon) graphs, this kind of noise manifests as an extra shoulder on the curves:

We have also applied our MST-based connectedness techniques to the following systems:

- distinguishing different types of topological scaling in fractals of the same dimension (click here or here for references)
- finding the point at which the invariant tori in a symplectic map break down (also addressed in Vanessa's Ph.D. thesis, listed below).

In order to exploit this idea to pull a signal apart into its
different regimes, one must come up with sensible approximations of
"nearby" and "different" in the sentences above. Another challenge is
that the components - clumps of "nearby" points - may overlap, causing
their trajectories to
*locally* coincide.

The 2011 *CHAOS* paper cited below demonstrates these ideas in
the context of IFS, discrete-time dynamical systems in which each time
step corresponds to the application of one of a finite collection of
maps. In two examples - a Henon IFS and an experimental time series
representing computer performance data - this segmentation algorithm
accurately identifies the times at which the regime switches occur and
determines the number and form of the deterministic components
themselves.

One way to characterize the number and type of holes that a space contains is via its homology groups. The main ingredients in constructing the homology groups are a triangulation of the original space (called a simplicial complex) and a boundary operator that maps k-dimensional simplices onto the (k-1)-dimensional simplices in their boundary.

This figure illustrates the boundary operator acting on a 2-simplex to give a 1-chain, which is necessarily a 1-cycle:

A sum of k-simplices is called a k-chain. Any k-chain that has zero boundary is called a k-cycle. Some, but not all, k-cycles are the boundaries of (k+1)-chains. A k-dimensional hole is detected as a k-cycle that is not the boundary of a (k+1)-chain.

Not every non-bounding cycle represents a different "hole," so we need an equivalence relation that tells us which cycles go around the same hole. Indeed, two k-cycles are equivalent (or homologous) if their difference is the boundary of a k+1-chain. Algebraically, the k-th homology group is the quotient group of k-cycles by k-boundaries. The figure below shows a triangulation of an annulus. The inner blue 1-cycle is homologous to the outer perimeter, and each represent the homology class of the hole:

The k-th Betti number, b_k, is defined to be the rank of H_k, so it gives us the number of non-equivalent non-bounding k-dimensional cycles. b_0 is the number of connected components. For subsets of 3-dimensional space, b_1 is (roughly speaking) the number of open-ended tunnels, and b_2 is the number of enclosed voids. For the annulus example above, b_0 = 1, b_1 = 1, and b_k = 0 for all k>=2.

The first step is to fatten the data by forming its alpha-neighborhood (a union of balls of radius alpha centered at each data point), as shown above. This alpha-neighborhood is then partioned into cells by taking the intersection with the Voronoi diagram. The alpha shape is the geometric dual of the partitioned alpha neighborhood, where the duality operation is the same as that used to get the Delaunay triangulation from the Voronoi diagram. Thus, each alpha shape is a subset of the Delaunay triangulation.

A fast incremental algorithm due to Delfinado and Edelsbrunner computes Betti numbers of alpha shapes in R^2 and R^3. See Edelsbrunner's home page for more details.

Below on the left is an example alpha shape of 10^4 points on the
Sierpinski triangle. The blue outline is the border of the alpha
neighbourhood and the orange is the corresponding sub-complex of the
Delaunay triangulation. In the graphs on the right we plot the number
of connected components b_0(alpha) in blue and number of holes
b_1(alpha) in red.

The number of components is the same as we found using the MST above.
The number of holes exhibits staircase-growth as alpha decreases.
This is exactly what we expect from the self-similar construction of
the Sierpinski triangle. As we decrease alpha further, b_1(alpha)
reaches a maximum and then decays as the edges bridging the narrow
necks are removed from the alpha complex.

The disconnected nature of the data is seen in the staircase growth of the blue curve (on the right) which counts the number of connected components. The graph of the number of holes (in red) shows that more holes are resolved as alpha decreases. What this graph fails to reveal however, is that the larger holes also disappear. The value of alpha for the neighborhood on the left is approximately 0.1. We can see three holes, and the graph of b_1 on the right records this. For alpha=0.2, the b_1 data shows there was a single hole. We can see that it would have been in the center of the fractal, but it is no longer present at the smaller alpha value chosen for the figure on the left.

This effect makes it difficult to make a correct diagnosis of the underlying topology. It does, however, give us geometric information about the embedding of the set in the plane, which may be useful in the context of some applications.

Mathematically, the problem is resolved by incorporating
information about how the fractal maps inside its alpha-neighbourhood,
or how a smaller neighbourhood maps inside a larger one. This leads
to the definition of a *persistent Betti number*, which was
introduced in V. Robins, "Towards computing homology from finite
approximations," *Topology Proceedings* **24** (1999): for
epsilon < alpha, b_k(epsilon,alpha) is the number of holes in the
epsilon-neighborhood that do not get filled in by the
alpha-neighborhood:

Note that the alpha-neighborhood may have extra holes that were not
present in the smaller neighborhood, but we are only interested in the
holes that exist in both. For more details and a mathematically
rigorous definition, see this
paper or Vanessa's Ph.D. thesis (listed below).

The persistent Betti numbers are computable in principle using linear algebra techniques. Recently, Edelsbrunner and collaborators have made a similar definition of persistent Betti number for alpha shapes, and devised an incremental algorithm for their quantity. See Edelsbrunner's home page for more details.

There are many other interesting applications of this work - e.g.:

- examining the distribution of gas droplets in a combustion chambers (any holes in this distribution will cause incomplete combustion).
- finding convection cells in helioseismology simulation data (these play roles in sunspot formation).

- Vanessa Robins, who pioneered most of the ideas described on this page during her Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, is now a research associate at the Australian National University.
- Zach Alexander, who is now at Seagate, developed topology-based techniques for analyzing computer-performance data as part of his PhD thesis.
- Liz Bradley, Professor of Computer Science.
- Jim Meiss, Professor of Applied Mathematics.
- Apollo Hogan, an undergraduate research assistant who helped write some of the code.

- A talk that I gave about this work at the IMA Workshop on Algebraic Topology in Dynamics, Differential Equations, and Experimental Data , February 10-14, 2014
- Z. Alexander,
*A Topology-Based Approach for Nonlinear Time-Series Analysis with Applications in Computer Performance Analysis*, Ph.D. thesis, University of Colorado, 2012. - Z. Alexander, E. Bradley, J. Garland and J. Meiss, "Iterated
Function System Models in Data Analysis: Detection and
Separation,"
*Chaos***22**:023103 (2012). Preliminary version available at arxiv; full preprint available as Technical Report CU-CS (Department of Computer Science) CU-CS-1087-11. - V. Robins, J. Abernethy, N. Rooney, and E. Bradley, "Topology
and Intelligent Data Analysis",
*Intelligent Data Analysis***8**:505-515 (2004) - V. Robins, N. Rooney, and E. Bradley, "Topology-Based Signal
Separation,"
*Chaos***14**:305-316 (2004) - V. Robins, J. D. Meiss, and E. Bradley,
"Computing Connectedness: an Exercise in Computational Topology,"
*Nonlinearity*,**11**:913-922 (1998). - V. Robins, J. Meiss, and E. Bradley, Computing
Connectedness: Disconnectedness and Discreteness,"
*Physica D***139**:276-300 (2000). - V. Robins, Towards
computing homology from finite approximations,
*Topology Proceedings***24**(1999). - V. Robins,
*Computational Topology at Multiple Resolutions*, Ph.D. thesis, University of Colorado, 2000.

- The alpha shape algorithm was developed by Herbert Edelsbrunner. You can obtain 3D alpha-shape software from this site and a faster 2D version from this site.
- Tamal Dey at Ohio State.
- Sumanta Guha at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
- The Washington State University computational topology group led by John Hart and Ulrike Axen.
- A paper entitled "Emerging challenges in computational topology", written by the participants of an NSF Workshop on Computational Topology that was held in Florida in June of 1999.

- This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number SMA-0720692 and by a Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of these funding agencies.