In this post we are going to through fitting a line of best fit using python. If you just want the python code feel free to just read the first section.

Note: This post assumes you didn’t do much maths at university/college (specifically least squares fitting), or that you were drunk and forgot! It serves as a starter for future, more challenging posts!

Fitting a line of best-fit is an example of Machine Learning. It is also considered by many to be a basic thing that you can just “do” when plotting data - a problem that maybe should be laid firmly at Excel’s feet. It’s really not that basic or simple, and shouldn’t be considered so.

That said, this first post has two basic aims:

  1. Give some simple code to make some lines
  2. Spark an interest and understanding of why aim 1 in isolation isn’t a particularly good idea

Give me a straight line already:

Let’s first import our modules and make some data.

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

y = np.array([0,3.5,5,4.5,3.5,4,6,7,8,9.5])
x = np.arange(y.shape[0])

plt.plot(x,y, 'o')


Then, probably the easiest way to get yourself a line is with numpy’s polyfit function:

def give_me_a_straight_line(x,y):
    w, b  = np.polyfit(x,y,deg=1)
    line  = w * x + b
    return line

line = give_me_a_straight_line(x,y)


line with polyfit

There: if all you wanted was the code for a straight line through your data, you should be all set! …However, we should really talk about what you are actually doing with this code (as no doubt a small part of you wants to know?!). You are approximating a function of the following form:

$\mathbf{x}$ is a $N$ dimensional vector of x values (think list or 1D-array)
$\mathbf{y}$ is a $N$ dimensional vector of y values
$w$ is a scalar that weights the $x$ value
$b$ is a scalar offset or bias (intercept)

In essence, the two parameters you are fitting, $w$ & $b$, take an $x$ value, and predict what the corresponding $y$ value should be. How does np.polyfit do this? Well, the fitting procedure that np.polyfit uses is least squares, to which the solution, happily, has a neat closed form expression:

Wait, what? Don’t worry, we’ll go through how we get to this “neat expression” in the next post, but more pressingly, why has $\mathbf{x}$ changed to $\mathbf{X}$ and what is $\mathbf{\beta}$?

First, $\mathbf{\beta}$ : this is now a vector (similar to a list), and it looks like $[w, b]^T$ - it’s a column vector, hence the $^T$. Therefore $\mathbf{\beta}$[0] will give you your x-weight, $w$, and $\mathbf{\beta}$[1] your bias, $b$.

Second, $\mathbf{X}$ is a matrix (similar to an array), with two columns: the orginal $\mathbf{x}$ vector, which has now also been augmented by an equally long column of ones that are used to fit the $b$ parameter.

Let’s plug this into our function already!

def give_me_a_straight_line_without_polyfit(x,y):
    # first augment the x vector with ones
    ones_vec = np.ones(x.shape)
    X = np.vstack([x, ones_vec]).T #.T as we want two columns
    # now plugin our least squares "solution"
    XX   = np.linalg.inv(, X))
    Xt_y =, y.T) #y.T as we want column vector
    beta =, Xt_y)
    line = beta[0]*x + beta[1]
    return line

line = give_me_a_straight_line_without_polyfit(x,y)
plt.plot(x,y, 'o')
plt.plot(x,line, 'r--')

line with polyfit

Okay, so that’s all good, but what if you want a curvey line of best fit, to join up the points…?

Give me a line that goes nicely through my points:

Sigh… I’m a devoted member of the club of “your-line-reflects-your-hypothesis-on-the-data-generating-process”, i.e. don’t just aim for the line to go through all your datapoints unless you think the underlying relationship between x and y is truely the nature of the function that describes your line. If in doubt use a straight line, or let the datapoints speak for themselves.

However, if you insist, we can just dial up and down the polynomial degree argument in polyfit…:

Note small edits to the code here! We now return a convenience object from the function, which allows us to pass in new xvalues

def give_me_a_line_like_excel(x,y):
    coefs = np.polyfit(x,y,deg=8)
    p_obj = np.poly1d(coefs) #this is a convenience class
    return p_obj
p_obj = give_me_a_line_like_excel(x,y)
x_line = np.linspace(min(x), max(x), 100) #make new xvalues 
y_line = p_obj(x_line)

plt.plot(x_line,y_line, 'r--')

line with polyfit

So what’s going on here?

We are now still predicting what the corresponding $y$ should be for a given $x$, but instead of doing this with the simple:

We are now augmenting our $x$’s by raising them to powers from 0 - to our polynomial degree, and using seperate fitted coefcients for each of these $x$’s.

This can be better expressed using a summation sign (think for loop):

Note, that we will not have to explicitly add a $b$ for our interecept, this is inbuilt in the expression as $x^0 = 1$, and therefore $w_0 = b$.

What we have actually done is to construct what is a called a Vandermonde matrix $\mathbf{X}^{N\times P}$ from a $N$ dimensional vector, $\mathbf{x}$. In a Vandermonde matrix, each column is the orginal $\mathbf{x}$, raised element-wise to a power, up to the $p^{th}$ degree of the polynomial that we want to fit.

Therefore, in matrix notation (like the least squares solution above), the equation that we are using to find a predicted $y$ from an $x$ value is:

$\mathbf{y}$ is the original vector of target $y$ values
$\mathbf{X}$ is a Vandermonde matrix constructed from the original $\mathbf{x}$
$\mathbf{\beta}$ is our vector of weights, or coefficients

Don’t worry if you’ve not done/forgotten what happens when a vector and matrix meet. Above is just a concise way of writing $ \sum_{i}^{n}y_i = \sum_{i}^{n}w_0x_i^0 + w_1x_i^1 + … + + w_{p}x_i^{p}$. So we are just looping through all of the datapoints in the $\mathbf{y}$ and original $\mathbf{x}$ vectors. If this isn’t clear, smash down a comment below and I’ll edit it!

Okay, well know we know this, we don’t need np.polyfit!

  • note the pretty cool use of a closure, to replicate the np.poly1d() call functionality
def give_me_a_line_like_excel_without_polyfit(x,y, deg = 8):
    deg += 1 # just to replicate np.polyfits deg argument
    # construct a matrix of polynomials
    X = np.vander(x, deg)
    # now plugin our least squares "solution"
    XX   = np.linalg.inv(, X))
    Xt_y =, y.T)
    beta =, Xt_y)

    # make a python closure to replicate the behaviour of np.poly1d
    def my_p_obj(new_x):
        # first we make our X matrix
        X = np.vander(new_x, deg)
        # now loop through our coffecients to get new_y vector
        line_best_fit = np.zeros(new_x.shape)
        for col_i,weight in enumerate(beta[:-1]): 
            line_best_fit += weight*X[:,col_i]
        line_best_fit += beta[-1]
        return line_best_fit 
    # return our closure function
    return my_p_obj

my_p_obj = give_me_a_line_like_excel_without_polyfit(x,y)

x_line = np.linspace(min(x), max(x), 100)
y_line = my_p_obj(x_line)

plt.plot(x,y, 'o')
plt.plot(x_line,y_line, 'r--')

line with polyfit

p.s. It’s probably worth writing that in practice, people don’t actually invert $X^TX$ so directly. Instead, you should use things like np.linalg.lstsq().