I came across this problem and am struggling to find a way to approach it. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

Suppose we are given a matrix $\{-1, 0, 1\}^{n\ \times\ k} $, for example,

$$\begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 & 1 & 0 & -1 \\ -1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 & 1 & 0 & -1 \\ -1 & -1 & 0 & 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & -1 \end{bmatrix}$$

Without trying every single permutation, find an ordering of columns $c_i$ that maximises the number of rows for which the first non-zero element is $1$.

For the example above, one such ordering (it's not unique!) is $(c_3, c_4, c_1, c_2, c_5)$, i.e.,

$$\begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 & 1 & 0 & -1 \\ 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 & 0 & 1 & -1 \\ 0 & 1 & 1 & -1 & 1 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 & 0 & -1 \end{bmatrix}$$

Here, for $4$ out of $5$ rows the first non-zero element is $1$.

  • $\begingroup$ What algorithmic approaches did you try? Where did you encounter this problem? Can you credit the original source? Can you share anything about the context or motivation? You might find this page helpful in improving your question. $\endgroup$
    – D.W.
    Mar 16, 2019 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ I want to suggest a preprocessing step: Let a semi-positive column (resp. row) be a column (resp. row) with only 0s and 1s. The suggestion is to remove all semi-positive columns, and also the rows with a 1 in a semi-positive column. In your example, that would remove rows 1, 3, and 4. Now you are left with rows and columns that all contain -1s. Might not help, but it could be simpler to reason about. $\endgroup$
    – Pål GD
    Mar 17, 2019 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ Can we assume that the number of rows is much smaller than the number of columns? This might make the problem easier. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2019 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Pål, similar preprocessing is possible with rows and columns which contain no 1s. However, I don't think it does make it easier to reason about: just smaller. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2019 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW this is a cross-post. haijo, if you don't receive an answer on one stack and think another might be better you can flag it and request a migration. Cross-posting is not good etiquette because answerers aren't aware of the answers you may have received on the other site and may waste their time repeating them. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2019 at 21:21

2 Answers 2


This problem, which I'll call CO for Column Ordering, is NP-hard. Here's a reduction from the NP-hard problem Vertex Cover (VC) to it:

Decision problem forms of VC and CO

Let the input VC instance be $(V, E, k)$. It represents the question: "Given the graph $(V, E)$, is it possible to choose a set of at most $k$ vertices from $V$ such that every edge in $E$ is incident on at least one chosen vertex?" We will construct an instance $(A, k')$ of CO that represents the question: "Given the matrix $A$ with elements in $\{-1, 0, 1\}$, is it possible to permute the columns of $A$ such that a 1 appears before a -1 on at least $k'$ rows?" These two problems are stated in decision problem form, whereby the answer to each is either YES or NO: formally speaking, it is this form of a problem that is NP-complete (or not). It is not too difficult to see that the more natural optimisation problem form stated in the OP's question is roughly equivalent in terms of complexity: binary search on the threshold parameter can be used to solve the optimisation problem using a decision problem solver, while a single invocation of an optimisation problem solver, followed by a single comparison, is enough to solve the decision problem.

Constructing an instance of CO from an instance of VC

Let $n=|V|$ and $m=|E|$. We will build a matrix $A$ with $(n+1)m + n$ rows and $n+1$ columns. The top $(n+1)m$ rows will be formed of $m$ blocks of $n+1$ rows each, with each block representing an edge that needs to be covered. The bottom $n$ rows contain vertex "flags", which will cause a column (corresponding to a vertex) to incur a fixed cost if it is included in the left-hand side of the CO solution (corresponding to a vertex being included in the vertex cover of the VC solution).

For each vertex $v_i$, create a column in which:

  • among the top $(n+1)m$ rows, the $j$-th block of $n+1$ rows all contain a +1 when edge $e_j$ is incident on $v_i$, and 0 otherwise, and
  • the bottom $n$ rows are all 0 except for the $i$-th, which is -1.

Create one more "fence" column that consists of $(n+1)m$ copies of -1, followed by $n$ copies of +1.

Finally, set the threshold $k'$ for the constructed CO instance: $(n+1)m + n - k$. In other words, we allow at most $k$ rows in which a -1 appears before a +1. Let's call this number of violating rows the "cost" of a CO solution.


The correspondence between a solution to the CO instance and a set of vertices in the original VC instance is: Every column to the left of the fence corresponds to a vertex that is in the set, and every column to the right of the fence corresponds to a vertex that is not.

Intuitively, the -1s in the top of the "fence" column force the selection of a subset of columns to be placed to its left that together contain +1s in all these positions -- corresponding to a subset of vertices that are incident on every edge. Each of these columns that appears to the left of the "fence" has a -1 on a distinct row somewhere in the bottom $n$ rows, incurring a cost of 1; the +1s in the bottom of the "fence" ensure that all columns placed to its right incur no such cost.

Clearly a VC solution using at most $k$ vertices yields a solution to the constructed CO instance with cost at most $k$: Just order the columns corresponding to vertices in the vertex cover arbitrarily, followed by the fence column, followed by all remaining columns in any order.

It remains to show that a solution to the CO instance with cost at most $k$ corresponds to a vertex cover with at most $k$ vertices.

Suppose to the contrary that there exists a solution to the CO instance with cost at most $k$ that leaves some row in the top $(n+1)m$ rows with a -1 before a +1. This row belongs to a block of $(n+1)$ rows corresponding to a particular edge $uv$. Every row in this block in the original instance $A$ is identical by construction; permuting columns may change these rows, but does not affect the fact that they are identical. Thus each of these $n+1$ identical rows has a -1 before a +1 in the solution, implying a cost of at least $n+1$. But $k \le n < n+1$: contradiction.

Since each of the $m$ blocks of rows in the top $(n+1)m$ rows have a +1 before a -1, each of the corresponding edges is covered by a vertex corresponding to a column to the left of the fence: that is, this subset of vertices constitutes a vertex cover. Since none of the top $(n+1)m$ rows have a -1 before a +1, the only place where cost can accrue in the solution is in the bottom $n$ rows, from columns placed to the left of the fence. Each such column has cost exactly 1, so given that the cost is at most $k$, there must be at most $k$ such columns, and hence at most $k$ vertices in the cover.

Finally, it's clear that the CO instance can be constructed in polynomial time from the VC instance, meaning that if a polynomial-time algorithm existed for solving CO, any VC instance could also be solved in polynomial time by first constructing a CO instance as described above and then solving it. Since VC is NP-hard, CO is too.

  • $\begingroup$ Whenever there is such a nice answer, it makes me wonder if "Hot Network Questions" should be replaced or joined by something like "Valuable Network Answers". $\endgroup$
    – John L.
    Mar 28, 2019 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ Could you shed some light on how you find the answer? That should be even more enlightening than the answer itself. $\endgroup$
    – John L.
    Mar 28, 2019 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Apass.Jack: Thanks! :) I don't have a special strategy, and can spend a long time wandering in the wrong direction. For example, here I spent a long time thinking I could reduce from Hamiltonian Cycle (which is similar insofar as it's about ordering elements) before realising that my construction would permit configurations corresponding to subtours, and thus wouldn't work. As a rule, I always try reductions from Vertex Cover or Partition, then maybe Clique. "Valuable Network Answers" sounds like a great idea :) $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2019 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Apass.Jack: One useful general idea is to think about how you can "scale" a target problem instance without changing its answer -- e.g. if the target problem (what we are trying to prove hard) is Vertex Cover, making any positive integer $r$ disjoint copies of the graph and also multiplying the threshold $k$ by $r$ leaves the answer unchanged. Often you want certain violations (target solutions that do not correspond to valid source solutions) to "overpower" certain others, and in that case you can "multiply up" the gadgets that correspond to the more important violation. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2019 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ For the reduction in my answer, we want to encode an instance of a problem where there are two "forces": Try to cover all the edges, and try to use as few vertices as possible. The first one is more important here, so I "multiplied up" the rows corresponding to edges: now a single edge violation costs $n+1$, meaning it's worse to miss a single edge than to include all vertices. And I just now realised that I should edit the answer to make explicit that we are dealing with the decision problem versions of these two problems, in which threshold parameters are part of the problem instance... $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2019 at 13:42

I don't know if there is actually a polynomial solution. Nevertheless based on Pål GD's comment, you can build a simplification function. The initial matrix is simplificated as you build the output sequence $S$.

function simplification:
    if any row i$ has no 1 or no -1 left, remove it
    if any column j has no -1 then,
       remove it and put j on the leftmost available position in S,
       remove all rows where column j has 1.
    if any column j has no 1 then, 
       remove it and put j on the rightmost available position in S.
    if no modification has been done on this loop, break

Then you have to do a complete exploration of the combinatorics using iteratively the function pick:

function pick(k):
    put column k on the leftmost available position in S
    remove any row where column k is -1 or 1

After every pick you can do a simplification to possibly reduce the number of possibilities to explore. I suggest to explore greedily starting with the column having the less -1, thus you may reach a lower bound making a stop criterion.

On the given example, the first simplification gives (as Pål GD explained in comment)

  • $S[0] = c3$, remove r1, r3
  • $S[1] = c4$, remove r4
  • $S[2] = c2$ this let you with a simple matrix to explore. $$\begin{bmatrix} -1 & 1 \\ 1 & -1 \\ \end{bmatrix}$$

I think a matrix making this method quite unefficient would have exactly one 1, and one -1 per row/column, something like $$\begin{bmatrix} -1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 1 & -1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & -1 & 1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 & -1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & -1 & 1 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 & -1 \\ \end{bmatrix}$$

Nevertheless, the simplification still spare about half the exploration steps. And this type of matrix can be split in several independant sub-matrix.

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    $\begingroup$ @Apass.Jack I edited to be more precise. Yes I meant the column position in the output sequence. $\endgroup$
    – Optidad
    Mar 19, 2019 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ Upvoted as the simplification step might be good enough for practical purposes (such as online programming exercises?). $\endgroup$
    – John L.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, in fact I was interested to estimate the amortized time cost but I do not really know how to do. Is this possible ? Or is it to much problem dependant ? $\endgroup$
    – Optidad
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ I had tried amortized-time analysis, which seems difficult. I suspect NP-completeness. On the other hand, the simplification step can be more general. For column $i$ and $j$ such that the shared nonzero part of them is the nonzero part of $i$, column $j$ can be removed if the extra nonzero part of $j$ does not contain 1, and column $i$ can be removed if the extra nonzero part of $j$ does not contain -1. $\endgroup$
    – John L.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Another dominance rule is: Whenever you have two columns $i$ and $j$ such that there is at least 1 row where $i$ has -1 and $j$ has +1, and there is no row where $i$ has +1 and $j$ has -1, there is never any advantage to placing $i$ first. Let's say that $j$ dominates $i$ in this case. You can implement this inside pick($k$) by checking whether $k$ dominates any of the columns already placed: if so, you can prune this branch of the search tree. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2019 at 13:14

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