The ACECLUS (approximate covariance estimation for clustering) procedure obtains approximate estimates of the pooled within-cluster covariance matrix when the clusters are assumed to be multivariate normal with equal covariance matrices. Neither cluster membership nor the number of clusters needs to be known. PROC ACECLUS is useful for preprocessing data to be subsequently clustered by the CLUSTER or FASTCLUS procedure.

Many clustering methods perform well with spherical clusters but poorly with elongated elliptical clusters (Everitt; 1980, pp. 77–97). If the elliptical clusters have roughly the same orientation and eccentricity, you can apply a linear transformation to the data to yield a spherical within-cluster covariance matrix—that is, a covariance matrix proportional to the identity. Equivalently, the distance between observations can be measured in the metric of the inverse of the pooled within-cluster covariance matrix. The remedy is difficult to apply, however, because you need to know what the clusters are in order to compute the sample within-cluster covariance matrix. One approach is to estimate iteratively both cluster membership and within-cluster covariance (Wolfe; 1970; Hartigan; 1975). Another approach is provided by Art, Gnanadesikan, and Kettenring (1982). They have devised an ingenious method for estimating the within-cluster covariance matrix without knowledge of the clusters. The method can be applied before any of the usual clustering techniques, including hierarchical clustering methods.

First, Art, Gnanadesikan, and Kettenring (1982) obtain a decomposition of the total-sample sum-of-squares-and-crossproducts (SSCP) matrix into within-cluster and between-cluster SSCP matrices computed from pairwise differences between observations, rather than differences between observations and means. Then, they show how the within-cluster SSCP matrix based on pairwise differences can be approximated without knowing the number or the membership of the clusters. The approximate within-cluster SSCP matrix can be used to compute distances for cluster analysis, or it can be used in a canonical analysis similar to canonical discriminant analysis. For more information, see Chapter 28, The CANDISC Procedure.

Art, Gnanadesikan, and Kettenring demonstrate by Monte Carlo calculations that their method can produce better clusters than the Euclidean metric even when the approximation to the within-cluster SSCP matrix is poor or the within-cluster covariances are moderately heterogeneous. The algorithm used by the ACECLUS procedure differs slightly from the algorithm used by Art, Gnanadesikan, and Kettenring. In the following sections, the PROC ACECLUS algorithm is described first; then, differences between PROC ACECLUS and the method used by Art, Gnanadesikan, and Kettenring are summarized.