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Continuous model development: a plea for persistent virtual worlds

By Mike Bithell

Consider the following scenario:-

A policy maker has a new idea and wishes to know what might be the effect of implementing the associated policy or regulation. They ask an agent-based modeller for help. The modeller replies that the situation looks interesting. They will start a project to develop a new model from scratch and it will take three years. The policy maker replies they want the results tomorrow afternoon. On being informed that this is not possible (or that the model will of necessity be bad) the policy maker looks elsewhere.

Clearly this will not do. Yet it seems, at present that every new problem leads to the development of a new “hero” ABM developed from the ground up. I would like to argue that for practical policy problems we need a different approach., one in which persistent models are developed that outlast the life of individual research projects, and are continuously developed, updated and challenged against the kinds of multiple data streams that are now becoming available in the social realm.

By way of comparison consider the case of global weather and climate models. These are large models developed over many years. They are typically hundreds of thousands of lines of code, and are difficult for any single individual to fully comprehend. Their history goes back to the early 20th century, when Richardson made the first numerical weather forecast for Europe, doing all the calculations by hand. Despite the forecast being incorrect (a better understanding of how to set up initial conditions was needed) he was not deterred: His vision of future forecasts involved a large room full of “computers” (i.e. people) each calculating the numerics for their part of the globe and pooling the results to enable forecasting in real time (Richardson 1922). With the advent of digital computing in the 1950s these models began to be developed systematically, and their skill at representing the weather and climate has undergone continuous improvement (see e.g. Lynch 2006). At the present time there are perhaps a few tens of such models that operate globally, with various strengths and weaknesses,. Their development is very far from complete: The systems they represent are complex, and the models very complicated, but they gain their effectiveness through being run continually, tested and re-tested against data,, with new components being repeatedly improved and developed by multiple teams over the last 50 years. They are not simple to set up and run, but they persist over time and remain close to the state-of-the –art and to the research community.

I suggest that we need something like this in agent-based modelling. A suite of communally developed models that are not abstract, but that represent substantial real systems, such as large cities, countries or regions,; that are persistent and continually developed, on a code base that is largely stable; and more importantly undergo continual testing and validation. At the moment this last part of the loop is not typically closed: models are developed and scenarios proposed, but the model is not then updated in the light of new evidence, and then re-used and extended: the PhD has finished, or the project ended, and the next new problem leads to a new model. Persistent models, being repeatedly run by many, would gradually have bugs and inconsistencies discovered and corrected(although new ones would also inevitably be introduced), could be very complicated because continually tested, and continually available for interpretation and development of understanding, and become steadily better documented. Accumulated sets of results would show their strengths and weaknesses for particular kinds of issues, and where more work was most urgently needed.

In this way when, say ,the mayor London wanted to know the effect of a given policy, a set of state-of the-art models of London would already exist which could be used to test out the policy given the best available current knowledge. The city model would be embedded in a lager model or models of the UK, or even the EU, so as to be sure that boundary conditions would not be a problem, and to see what the wider unanticipated consequences might be. The output from such models might be very uncertain: “forecasts” (saying what will happen, as opposed to what kind of things might happen) would not be the goal, but the history of repeated testing and output would demonstrate what level of confidence was warranted in the types of behaviour displayed by the results: preferably this would at least be better than random guesswork. Nor would such a set of models rule out or substitute for other kinds of model: idealised, theoretical, abstract and applied case studies would still be needed to develop understanding and new ideas.

The kind of development of models for policy is already taking place in to an extent (see e.g. Waldrop 2018), but is currently very limited. However, in the face of current urgent and pressing problems, such as climate change, eco-system destruction, global financial insecurity, continuing widespread poverty and failure to approach sustainable development goals in any meaningful way, the ad-hoc make-a-new-model every time approach is inadequate. To build confidence in ABM as a tool that can be relied on for real world policy we need persistent virtual worlds.


Lynch, P. (2006). The Emergence of Numerical Weather Prediction: Richardson’s Dream. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, L. F. (1922). Weather Prediction by Numerical Process (reprinted 2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Waldrop, M. (2018). Free Agents. Science, 13, 360, 144-147. DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6385.144

Bithell, M. (2018) Continuous model development: a plea for persistent virtual worlds, Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22nd August 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/08/22/mb


A Forgotten Contribution: Jean-Paul Grémy’s Empirically Informed Simulation of Emerging Attitude/Career Choice Congruence (1974)

By Edmund Chattoe-Brown

Since this is new venture, we need to establish conventions. Since JASSS has been running since 1998 (twenty years!) it is reasonable to argue that something un-cited in JASSS throughout that period has effectively been forgotten by the ABM community. This contribution by Grémy is actually a single chapter in a book otherwise by Boudon (a bibliographical oddity that may have contributed to its neglect. Grémy also appears to have published mostly in French, which may also have had an effect. An English summary of his contribution to simulation might be another useful item for RofASSS.) Boudon gets 6 hits on the JASSS search engine (as of 31.05.18), none of which mention simulation and Gremy gets no hits (as does Grémy: unfortunately it is hard to tell how online search engines “cope with” accents and thus whether this is a “real” result).

Since this book is still readily available as a mass-market paperback, I will not reprise the argument of the simulation here (and its limitations relative to existing ABM methodology could be a future RofASSS contribution). Nonetheless, even approximately empirical modelling in the mid-seventies is worthy of note and the article is early to say other important things (for example about simulation being able to avoid “technical assumptions” – made for solubility rather than realism).

The point of this contribution is to draw attention to an argument that I have only heard twice (and only found once in print) namely that we should look at the form of real data as an initial justification for using ABM at all (please correct me if there are earlier or better examples). Grémy (1974, p. 210) makes the point that initial incongruities between the attitudes that people hold (altruistic versus selfish) and their career choices (counsellor versus corporate raider) can be resolved in either direction as time passes (he knows this because Boudon analysed some data collected by Rosenberg at two points from US university students) as well as remaining unresolved and, as such, cannot readily be explained by some sort of “statistical trend” (that people become more selfish as they get older or more altruistic as they become more educated). He thus hypothesises (reasonably it seems to me) that the data requires a model of some sort of dynamic interaction process that Grémy then simulates, paying some attention to their survey results both in constraining the model and analysing its behaviour.

This seems to me an important methodological practice to rescue from neglect. (It is widely recognised anecdotally that people tend to use the research methods they know and like rather than the ones that are suitable.) Elsewhere (Chattoe-Brown 2014), inspired by this argument, I have shown how even casually accessed attitude change data really looks nothing like the output of the (very popular) Zaller-Deffuant model of opinion change (very roughly, 228 hits in JASSS for Deffuant, 8 for Zaller and 9 for Zaller-Deffuant though hyphens sometimes produce unreliable results for online search engines too.) The attitude of the ABM community to data seems to be rather uncomfortable. Perhaps support in theory and neglect in practice would sum it up (Angus and Hassani-Mahmooei 2015, Table 5 in section 4.5). But if our models can’t even “pass first base” with existing real data (let alone be calibrated and validated) should we be too surprised if what seems plausible to us does not seem plausible to social scientists in substantive domains (and thus diminishes their interest in ABM as a “real method?”) Even if others in the ABM community disagree with my emphasis on data (and I know that they do) I think this is a matter that should be properly debated rather than just left floating about in coffee rooms (as such this is what we intend RofASSS to facilitate). As W. C. Fields is reputed to have said (though actually the phrase appears to have been common currency), we would wish to avoid ABM being just “Another good story ruined by an eyewitness”.


Angus, Simon D. and Hassani-Mahmooei, Behrooz (2015) ‘“Anarchy” Reigns: A Quantitative Analysis of Agent-Based Modelling Publication Practices in JASSS, 2001-2012’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 18(4):16.

Chattoe-Brown, Edmund (2014) ‘Using Agent Based Modelling to Integrate Data on Attitude Change’, Sociological Research Online, 19(1):16.

Gremy, Jean-Paul (1974) ‘Simulation Techniques’, in Boudon, Raymond, The Logic of Sociological Explanation (Harmondsworth: Penguin), chapter 11:209-227.

Chattoe-Brown, E. (2018) A Forgotten Contribution: Jean-Paul Grémy’s Empirically Informed Simulation of Emerging Attitude/Career Choice Congruence (1974). Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1st June 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/06/01/ecb/