SLEP015: Feature Names Propagation

Author:Thomas J Fan
Type:Standards Track


This SLEP proposes adding the get_feature_names_out method to all transformers and the feature_names_in_ attribute for all estimators. The feature_names_in_ attribute is set during fit if the input, X, contains the feature names.


scikit-learn is commonly used as a part of a larger data processing pipeline. When this pipeline is used to transform data, the result is a NumPy array, discarding column names. The current workflow for extracting the feature names requires calling get_feature_names on the transformer that created the feature. This interface can be cumbersome when used together with a pipeline with multiple column names:

X = pd.DataFrame({'letter': ['a', 'b', 'c'],
                  'pet': ['dog', 'snake', 'dog'],
                  'distance': [1, 2, 3]})
y = [0, 0, 1]
orig_cat_cols, orig_num_cols = ['letter', 'pet'], ['num']

ct = ColumnTransformer(
    [('cat', OneHotEncoder(), orig_cat_cols),
     ('num', StandardScaler(), orig_num_cols)])
pipe = make_pipeline(ct, LogisticRegression()).fit(X, y)

cat_names = (pipe['columntransformer']

feature_names = np.r_[cat_names, orig_num_cols]

The feature_names extracted above corresponds to the features directly passed into LogisticRegression. As demonstrated above, the process of extracting feature_names requires knowing the order of the selected categories in the ColumnTransformer. Furthermore, if there is feature selection in the pipeline, such as SelectKBest, the get_support method would need to be used to infer the column names that were selected.


This SLEP proposes adding the feature_names_in_ attribute to all estimators that will extract the feature names of X during fit. This will also be used for validation during non-fit methods such as transform or predict. If the X is not a recognized container with columns, then feature_names_in_ can be undefined. If feature_names_in_ is undefined, then it will not be validated.

Secondly, this SLEP proposes adding get_feature_names_out(input_names=None) to all transformers. By default, the input features will be determined by the feature_names_in_ attribute. The feature names of a pipeline can then be easily extracted as follows:

# ['cat__letter_a', 'cat__letter_b', 'cat__letter_c',
   'cat__pet_dog', 'cat__pet_snake', 'num__distance']

Note that get_feature_names_out does not require input_names because the feature names was stored in the pipeline itself. These features will be passed to each step’s get_feature_names_out method to obtain the output feature names of the Pipeline itself.

Enabling Functionality

The following enhancements are not a part of this SLEP. These features are made possible if this SLEP gets accepted.

  1. This SLEP enables us to implement an array_out keyword argument to all transform methods to specify the array container outputted by transform. An implementation of array_out requires feature_names_in_ to validate that the names in fit and transform are consistent. An implementation of array_out needs a way to map from the input feature names to output feature names, which is provided by get_feature_names_out.

  2. An alternative to array_out: Transformers in a pipeline may wish to have feature names passed in as X. This can be enabled by adding a array_input parameter to Pipeline:

    pipe = make_pipeline(ct, MyTransformer(), LogisticRegression(),

    In this case, the pipeline will construct a pandas DataFrame to be inputted into MyTransformer and LogisticRegression. The feature names will be constructed by calling get_feature_names_out as data is passed through the Pipeline. This feature implies that Pipeline is doing the construction of the DataFrame.

Considerations and Limitations

  1. The get_feature_names_out will be constructed using the name generation specification from SLEP007: Feature names, their generation and the API.

  2. For a Pipeline with only one estimator, slicing will not work and one would need to access the feature names directly:

    pipe1 = make_pipeline(StandardScaler(), LogisticRegression())
    pipe[:-1].feature_names_in_  # Works
    pipe2 = make_pipeline(LogisticRegression())
    pipe[:-1].feature_names_in_  # Does not work

    This is because pipe2[:-1] raises an error because it will result in a pipeline with no steps. We can work around this by allowing pipelines with no steps.

  3. feature_names_in_ can be any 1-D Sequence, such as an list or an ndarray.

  4. Meta-estimators will delegate the setting and validation of feature_names_in_ to its inner estimators. The meta-estimator will define feature_names_in_ by referencing its inner estimators. For example, the Pipeline can use steps[0].feature_names_in_ as the input feature names. If the inner estimators do not define feature_names_in_ then the meta-estimator will not defined feature_names_in_ as well.

Backward compatibility

  1. This SLEP is fully backward compatible with previous versions. With the introduction of get_feature_names_out, get_feature_names will be deprecated. Note that get_feature_names_out’s signature will always contain input_features which can be used or ignored. This helps standardize the interface for the get feature names method.
  2. The inclusion of a get_feature_names_out method will not introduce any overhead to estimators.
  3. The inclusion of a feature_names_in_ attribute will increase the size of estimators because they would store the feature names. Users can remove the attribute by calling del est.feature_names_in_ if they want to remove the feature and disable validation.


There have been many attempts to address this issue:

  1. array_out in keyword parameter in transform : This approach requires third party estimators to unwrap and wrap array containers in transform, which introduces more burden for third party estimator maintainers. Furthermore, array_out with sparse data will introduce an overhead when being passed along in a Pipeline. This overhead comes from the construction of the sparse data container that has the feature names.
  2. SLEP007: Feature names, their generation and the API : SLEP007 introduces a feature_names_out_ attribute while this SLEP proposes a get_feature_names_out method to accomplish the same task. The benefit of the get_feature_names_out method is that it can be used even if the feature names were not passed in fit with a dataframe. For example, in a Pipeline the feature names are not passed through to each step and a get_feature_names_out method can be used to get the names of each step with slicing.
  3. SLEP012: InputArray : The InputArray was developed to work around the overhead of using a pandas DataFrame or an xarray DataArray. The introduction of another data structure into the Python Data Ecosystem, would lead to more burden for third party estimator maintainers.

References and Footnotes

[1]Each SLEP must either be explicitly labeled as placed in the public domain (see this SLEP as an example) or licensed under the Open Publication License.