Agent-based modelling at the University of Oxford

IT Services offers an agent-based modelling (ABM) service – sound esoteric? Not so!

ABM is a simulation technique that emphasizes modelling the interaction between autonomous agents or individuals. Think about the way ants forage – each ant might have a behaviour to move randomly until it finds some food, at which point it heads back to the nest and secretes a chemical signal (pheromone). The pheromone attracts other ants towards the food source, and guides them towards the nest too. An ant by itself would be extremely inefficient at gathering food, but many ants with this collective chemical memory are very effective. But it is more complicated than this – the ants have to secrete a pheromone that evaporates and diffuses at the right rates!

You can run an ant foraging model here.

Ant foraging is just one example from zoology, but researchers are using ABM in nearly all disciplines, but especially ecology, epidemiology, economics, political sciences, anthropology and public policy.

A video of a model of the Spanish Flu Pandemic that our team built illustrates the use of ABM in both epidemiology and history.

So why are researchers creating models? It must be to predict the future right? No so, and one of the fathers of ABM went out of his way to point out that there are at least 16 good reasons to create ABMs other than prediction.

Students learning to model need guidance and an example is this tutorial for modelling an epidemic that spreads over a social network (does not work with Internet Explorer 9 or below).

How do we support researchers at Oxford? The research support team provides specialist advice in a number of key areas aligned to the IT Services strategic plan for research. In each domain we actively engage the research community by offering taught courses through the ITLP, presentations for research groups, and web-based resources. In all cases we aim our services at the long-tail i.e. the population of researchers that need support getting started, or research groups that want to experiment with this technique and need hands-on practical support (someone to write the code).

In the case of the ABM specialism we maintain and support a web application called the Behaviour Composer, a pioneering tool for creating and sharing NetLogo simulations online. The Behaviour Composer was created in the project with funding from the Jisc and Eduserv between 2007-2010. We won a University of Oxford teaching award in 2009. We also meet researchers on request, and charge for bespoke teaching for research groups, and for supporting work packages on research projects.

Here’s a few examples to illustrate the number of different ways ABM is being used by researchers at Oxford:

  1. Created an ABM to explore the Modes of Religiosity theory, the model later became part of a doctoral thesis (Institute of social & cultural anthropology, European Commission project – Explaining Religion project).

  2. Co-designed and teach 3 hour practical on using ABM to think about the spread of a virus through different social network topologies (Zoology)

  3. Help teach a 2-hour practical on using ABM to think about wealth distribution (Said Business School)

  4. Designed and built a game-like ABM to discuss cropping decisions with farmers in Cameroon (Institute of social & cultural anthropology)

  5. Support researcher in creating a model of living populations that are based on data from medieval graveyards(Archeology department)

  6. Created the Epidemic Game Maker a tool for creating models of the spread of an infection for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (Zoology department)

  7. Supported researcher in getting started with a model of the Arab Spring and commented on his transfer document (Oxford Internet Institute)

  8. Bespoke ABM course for agricultural genetics researchers from Edinburgh and Alberta Universities (Joint Canadian and ESRC project)

  9. Taught a course on how to teach ABM in UK universities (Life Sciences HE Academy)

  10. Supported postdoc in creating a model of cancer cells and genes (Applied computational genomics group: )

  11. Created a model to constuct counter-factual histories of the Spanish Flu Pandemic: (Jisc WW1 projects)

  12. Supported Prof. Cindy Skatch in designing a model to think about the consequences of the French government’s Burka Ban (Politics and International Relations)

  13. Supported researcher in building an network formation model (Economics)

  14. Supported researcher interested in modelling the spread of Lyme disease and ticks in UK national parks (Zoology)

  15. Support researcher interested in modelling migration between India and the UK ( International Migration Institute)

Besides the projects we have supported there are many other ABM projects within Oxford including

  1. Institute for New Economic Thinking CRISIS project

  2. The Insect Vector Project in the Zoology Department

  3. FHI-Amlin Research Collaboration on Systemic Risk of Modelling by the Future of Humanity Institute

  4. Several projects led by Felix Reed-Tsochas in the Said Business School

We also co-host a university-wide agent-based modelling get-together each term.

Read more about the ABM Service and ongoing work in the Modelling4All blog. If you are interested in learning more about ABM send an email to


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