Span Categorization New: 1.11

A common task in applied NLP is extracting spans of texts from documents, including longer phrases or nested expressions. Prodigy lets you label potentially overlapping and nested spans and create training data for models and components like spaCy’s SpanCategorizer.

Named Entity Recognition vs. Span Categorization

Named entity recognition is very effective for proper nouns and self-contained expressions like person names or products, because it predicts single-token-based tags and takes advantage of clear span boundaries. However, it’s usually not the right tool for other types of phrases, sentence fragments and overlapping spans with less consistent boundaries and mixed lengths. For use cases like this, you typically want to choose a model that predicts scores and labels over a selection of spans. We call this type of component a span categorizer.

Named Entity RecognitionSpan Categorization
spans are non-overlapping syntactic units like proper nouns (e.g. persons, organizations, products)spans are potentially overlapping units like noun phrases or sentence fragments
model predicts single token-based tags like B-PERSON with one tag per tokenmodel predicts scores and labels for suggested spans
takes advantage of clear token boundariesless sensitive to exact token boundaries

Before you get started on your NLP project, it can often be very helpful to take a step back and think about the type of information you really need for your downstream application and which NLP component is the best fit to capture this information in your data and annotate it consistently. In some cases, it can make more sense to opt for a text classifier instead of a span categorizer, which will predict one or more labels over the whole text and lets you capture signals from multiple places across the text, instead of attaching them to specific spans of text.

Fully manual annotation

To get started with manual span annotation, all you need is a file with raw input text you want to annotate and a spaCy pipeline for tokenization (so the web app knows what a word is and can allow more efficient highlighting). The following command will start the web server with the spans.manual recipe, stream in texts from journal_papers.jsonl and provides the label options FACTOR, CONDITION, METHOD and EFFECT. The spans_manual UI will then let you annotate arbitrary and potentially overlapping spans that are displayed below the tokens.


prodigyspans.manualcovid_articlesblank:en./journal_papers.jsonl--label FACTOR,CONDITION,METHOD,EFFECT
This live demo requires JavaScript to be enabled.

To make annotation faster, the selection automatically “snaps” to token boundaries and you can double-click on a single token to select it. Hovering a span label will highlight all tokens it refers to. To remove a span, you can click on its label.

Working with patterns

Just like ner.manual, the spans.manual workflow supports providing a match patterns file. Match patterns are typically provided as a JSONL (newline-delimited JSON) file and can be used to pre-highlight spans for faster and more efficient annotation. Since spans can overlap, the found matches are not filtered and all matched spans will be pre-highlighted in the UI.


prodigyspans.manualcovid_articlesblank:en./journal_papers.jsonl--label CONDITION--patterns ./condition_patterns.jsonl

Working with suggester functions

spaCy’s SpanCategorizer works by using a suggester function to suggest spans that the model will then predict labels for. A common strategy is to use ngrams of certain sizes, e.g. all possible spans of lengths 1 to 10. You can also implement more sophisticated suggesters, for instance to consider all noun phrases in Doc.noun_chunks, or only certain spans defined by match patterns.

Letting Prodigy infer the best-matching ngram suggester

During development, it’s often helpful to just start annotating and get a sense for the data and the types of spans you’re looking for. If you don’t provide a config with a suggester during training, Prodigy will use the collected annotations to infer the best matching ngram suggester based on the available spans. For example, if your shortest span is 1 token and your longest span is 5 tokens, the created ngram suggester will cover a range of 1 to 5.

Setting the --verbose flag on train will output a detailed breakdown of the spans found in the data. This is also useful for discovering common patterns and outliers, or even potential mistakes. As always with machine learning, it’s very important that your training data is representative of what your model will see at runtime.

Example (excerpt)

prodigytrain--spancat covid_articles,eval:covid_articles_eval--verbose======================== Generating Prodigy config ========================Auto-generating config with spaCyUsing ‘spacy.ngram_range_suggester.v1’ for ‘spancat’ with sizes 1 to 5 (inferred from data)
Sizes: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
- 1 (298 spans)
- 2 (96 spans)
- 3 (15 spans)
- 4 (1 spans)
- 5 (8 spans)
Generated training config

The inferred suggester sizes will be added to your config.cfg that’s exported with the trained pipeline and generated when you run data-to-spacy. Once you got a better sense for the types of spans and span sizes you’re expecting, it can often be useful to run different experiments with different suggesters and compare the results.

config.cfg (excerpt)

@misc = "spacy.ngram_range_suggester.v1"
min_size = 1
max_size = 5

Annotating with suggester functions

Prodigy lets you provide a suggester function when you annotate with spans.manual, so you can make sure that the spans you annotate match the suggested spans you want to train on. This way, you’ll never end up with annotations describing spans that aren’t ever suggested and that the model couldn’t learn from. The suggester is run via the validate_answer callback every time an annotator submits an answer. If an annotated span doesn’t match the suggested spans, you’ll see an alert in the UI with more information, and you’ll only be able to submit the annotation if the validation passes.

Screenshot of validation alert for span suggester

The name of the suggester function can be provided via --suggester. You can use Prodigy’s -F argument to load in a Python file containing the registered suggester function, which should be registered in spaCy’s @misc registry. If your suggester requires annotations from other components you can use the --use_annotations argument, which uses the defined spaCy model to process the text and to save the annotations.

Example with suggester validation

prodigyspans.manualcovid_articlesblank:en./journal_papers.jsonl--label CONDITION--suggester 123_ngram_suggester.v1-F ./suggester.py--use_annotations


from spacy import registry
from spacy.pipeline.spancat import build_ngram_suggester
def custom_ngram_suggester():
return build_ngram_suggester(sizes=[1, 2, 3]) # all ngrams of size 1, 2 and 3

When you train your span categorizer, you can define the suggester function to use in your config.cfg. If you’ve validated your annotations against the same suggester, you’ll know that all examples you’re training from match the suggested spans the model will see.

config.cfg (excerpt)

@misc = "spacy.ngram_suggester.v1"
sizes = [1, 2, 3]

Training a span categorizer

Training a spaCy pipeline

The easiest way to run a quick experiment is to use Prodigy’s train workflow, which is a thin wrapper around spaCy’s training API. The --spancat argument lets you provide one or more datasets to train from. You can optionally provide dedicated evaluation sets using the eval: prefix. If no evaluation set is provided, a percentage of examples is held back for evaluation. If no custom config is specified, Prodigy will take care of inferring the best-matching suggester to use based on the data.


prodigytrain./model--spancat covid_articles,eval:covid_articles_eval

Instead of training with Prodigy, you can use the data-to-spacy command to export a ready-to-use corpus and config for training with spaCy directly:

Example (excerpt)

prodigydata-to-spacy./corpus--spancat covid_articles

To use this data for training with spaCy, you can run: python -m spacy train ./corpus/config.cfg --paths.train ./corpus/train.spacy --paths.dev ./corpus/dev.spacy

Predicted span annotations are available as a list of Span objects via the Doc.spans, a dictionary of span groups. This allows you to store multiple collections of spans from different sources on the Doc. By default, annotations exported with Prodigy will use the key "sc" for “span categorization”:

Usage in spaCy

nlp = spacy.load("./model")
doc = nlp("Septic shock and bacteremia were two independent risk factors.")
# {'sc': [Septic shock, Septic shock, bacteremia, bacteremia]}
print([(span.text, span.label_) for span in doc.spans["sc"]])
# [('Septic shock', 'FACTOR'), ('Septic shock', 'CONDITION'), ('bacteremia', 'FACTOR'), ('bacteremia', 'CONDITION')]

Exporting your annotations

The db-out exports annotations in a straightforward JSONL format. Spans are provided as a list of "spans" with their respective start and end character offsets, and the entity label. This should make it easy to convert and use it to train any model. If you annotated using a manual interface, the data will also include a "tokens" property so you can restore the tokenization.