How to Calculate Hamming Distance in Python

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The Hamming distance is a measure used to compare two strings of equal length. It is the count of positions at which the corresponding symbols differ in two strings of equal length. The Hamming distance can be applied to error detection and correction, information theory, and other computational fields.

In this article, we will delve into calculating Hamming distance in Python, starting with an overview of the concept, a Python function to calculate Hamming distance, and potential applications, especially in the field of bioinformatics and machine learning.


You should have a basic understanding of Python, including data types such as strings and lists, and control structures such as loops. For later sections, familiarity with the numpy and scikit-learn libraries will be beneficial. If you haven’t installed these libraries yet, you can do so using pip:

pip install numpy
pip install scikit-learn

Defining Hamming Distance

Hamming distance is named after Richard Hamming, an American mathematician and computer scientist. In the simplest terms, the Hamming distance between two equal-length strings is the number of positions at which the corresponding symbols are different.

For instance, if we have two binary strings 1101 and 1001, the Hamming distance between them would be 1, because they differ at the second position.

Calculating Hamming Distance in Python

Hamming Distance Between Two Strings

To calculate the Hamming distance between two strings, we can create a simple Python function that compares each character in the strings:

def hamming_distance(string1, string2):
    if len(string1) != len(string2):
        raise ValueError("Strings must be of equal length")
    return sum(c1 != c2 for c1, c2 in zip(string1, string2))

string1 = '1101'
string2 = '1001'

print(hamming_distance(string1, string2))  # output: 1

In this function, string1 and string2 are the two strings we are comparing. We first check that the strings are of equal length, raising a ValueError if they’re not. Then, we use a generator expression within the sum function to iterate over the characters in the strings (paired using zip), checking for inequality.

Hamming Distance Between Two Lists

You can also compute the Hamming distance between two lists of equal length in a similar manner:

def hamming_distance_list(list1, list2):
    if len(list1) != len(list2):
        raise ValueError("Lists must be of equal length")
    return sum(e1 != e2 for e1, e2 in zip(list1, list2))

list1 = [1, 0, 1, 1]
list2 = [1, 0, 0, 1]

print(hamming_distance_list(list1, list2))  # output: 1

Using Libraries for Efficient Computations

Python’s built-in features are perfectly suitable for calculating Hamming distance, but when you’re working with large amounts of data, efficiency becomes a concern. Libraries such as numpy and scikit-learn provide optimized functions to handle these computations more efficiently.

Hamming Distance with Numpy

Numpy provides an intuitive and efficient way to calculate the Hamming distance between two lists or arrays:

import numpy as np

def hamming_distance_np(array1, array2):
    return np.count_nonzero(np.array(array1) != np.array(array2))

array1 = np.array([1, 0, 1, 1])
array2 = np.array([1, 0, 0, 1])

print(hamming_distance_np(array1, array2))  # output: 1

Here, we’re using numpy’s count_nonzero function, which counts the number of non-zero elements in an array. We pass it an array of boolean values representing the element-wise inequality of array1 and array2.

Hamming Distance with Scikit-learn

For calculating Hamming loss, which is the fraction of labels that are incorrectly predicted, scikit-learn provides a function called hamming_loss. Hamming loss is useful in multiclass and multilabel classification problems:

from sklearn.metrics import hamming_loss

y_true = [1, 1, 0, 1]
y_pred = [1, 0, 0, 1]

print(hamming_loss(y_true, y_pred))  # output: 0.25

Applications of Hamming Distance

Hamming distance has a variety of applications, particularly in the fields of computer science and information theory. For instance, it’s used in telecommunication to count the number of flipped bits in a fixed-length binary word as an estimate of error, and it’s heavily used in genetics to measure the genetic distance between two species or individuals.

In machine learning, it’s often used in clustering algorithms, such as K-Means for categorical data. In natural language processing, it’s sometimes used to measure the similarity between two texts.


In this article, we’ve discussed the Hamming distance and shown how to calculate it in Python, both using basic Python and with the help of numpy and scikit-learn. Whether you’re working on error detection in data transmission, comparing genetic sequences, or building a machine learning model, understanding how to calculate and apply Hamming distance can be a valuable skill. Just remember, it’s essential that the strings (or lists or arrays) you’re comparing are of equal length, as the concept of Hamming distance doesn’t apply to strings of unequal length.

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