Agent-based modelling: The BehaviourComposer

Agent-based modelling has become an increasingly important tool for learners studying social and biological systems. Sometimes referred to as individual-based modelling, it is used to simulate the actions and interactions of autonomous agents (both individual or collective entities such as organizations or groups) with a view to assessing their effects on the system as a whole. The Modelling4All project at the Learning Technologies Group, University of Oxford have developed the BehaviourComposer tool to enable scholars to create agent-based models with little prior knowledge of programming or computer science, opening up this area of investigation to much wider audiences in teaching, learning, research and outreach.

Professor Angela McLean (Department of Zoology and Director of the Institute for Emerging Infections), along with Dr Robert Belshaw (Department of Zoology), have worked with the team to integrate ABM into the design of the Infectious Disease Control course.

The Challenge

ABM can help the medical community and policy-makers predict which populations are most susceptible to infection, the dynamics of epidemics, and the probable outcomes for alternative interventions. It is thus an important skill for students of biology to learn. However, as a computer modelling technique it traditionally requires a high level of programming skills which can make it time consuming or even inaccessible to non-programmers. To enable students to engage more deeply and effectively with ABM Angela was looking for a technology-enabled method that would be more accessible to her students.

The Innovation

Through the Learning Technologies Group Angela heard about the Modelling4All project and the BehaviourComposer tool. Unlike other forms of computer modelling software, the BehaviourComposer does not require users to first master a computer programming language to engage with ABM. It supports high level model building allowing the user to browse for prebuilt micro-behaviours (small blocks of code) which can be combined and customised to become an agent-based model. In the process students learn about processes and complex systems and also develop their modelling literacy. Further more the BehaviourComposer is free and runs in the user’s web browser, allowing them to save their work on servers, facilitating sharing and mobile use.

The interface and the whole approach are very intuitive so people can get into modelling without having to overcome the barriers which are sometimes there for people having to deal with more complex mathematics.

Angela and Robert worked with the Modelling4All team to design a series of classroom based-sessions which saw undergraduate Biology students use the BehaviourComposer to model the spread of an epidemic over social networks. The team designed a library of micro-behaviours that the students could use in the sessions to explore particular questions.

The students’ first session saw them build a simple mathematical model of epidemics using other software. This modelled the dynamics of entire populations. In the following session they were given an agent-based model that mirrored this aggregate model. They then used the BehaviourComposer to explore the consequences of modelling a heterogeneous population. In just a single session they were able to build models with different kinds of networks and interventions. They ran several variant models and each student contributed to a spreadsheet that automatically collected the reported results from a series of simulation runs. These were then discussed.

Following the success of the BehaviourComposer in the classroom the team developed an Epidemic Game Maker that became part of Oxford’s Emerging Infections: Viruses that come in from the Wild stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in 2010.


As a teaching tool, the BehaviourComposer has been very successful. Not only does it enable students to explore their subjects more deeply through ABM but it also provides them with a first step towards learning computer programming for building models. It is currently being used not only in Biology, but also in business studies and in the study of religion in society:

The students absolutely enjoyed it, especially as they were comparing this to a more traditional modelling practical. Most of them said they felt like they were playing a computer game. ~ Dr Samir Bhatt, Department of Zoology

My experience when we use the Behaviour Composer tool is that all students are fully involved in building the Sugarscape model, testing various assumptions, and seeing what conclusions they can draw. This is no mean feat! Many colleagues at other business schools are quite surprised, to say the least, when I tell them that we get an entire class of MBA students to build agent-based models. ~ Dr. Felix Reed-Tsochas, Director, Complex Systems Studies, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, Saïd Business School

Modelling4All, combined with the support of Ken and Howard, enabled me to produce easily and quickly an absorbing and stimulating computer practical for my undergraduate students. In my case, the practical allowed the students to study and manipulate the spread and control of a hypothetical disease, in particular exploring the role of infection networks, but I see the possibilities of Modelling4All in teaching many areas of biology, and have recommended it to my colleagues. ~ Dr. Robert Belshaw, Department of Zoology

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