Modelling the spread of infection through social networks

Ken and Howard worked with Dr. R. Belshaw to develop an online practical that guides students in exploring the dynamics of the spread of disease through different social structures. The three hour practical was run yesterday with 25 students working concurrently, individually or on pairs. Aside from a few usability issues all the students successfully completed the exercise.

The guide made use of the Google Spreadsheets web service to allow the students to systematically explore simulations and collaborate in ‘pooling’ together data (in more-or-less real time) into a number of histograms. Google spreadsheets was also used to allow students to answer a number of questions with the aim of sharing answers between the class (i.e. ‘peer learning’).

Dr. Belshaw is keen to share the tutorial with other teachers. He has requested that we allow him to add a creative commons license to let others know that they can use and re-purpose the tutorial as long as they acknowledge his work. We’ve logged this request in the project issue tracker and will explore the creative commons tools that can be used to achieve this fairly easily.


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Draft of a paper about the project now available

Ken Kahn and Howard Noble have recently submitted a paper to the SIMUTools’09 Conference. Comments are welcome. This is still a draft so please don’t cite it.

The Modelling4All Project — A web-based modelling tool embedded in Web 2.0

The Modelling4All Project is building a web-based tool for constructing, running, visualising, analysing, and sharing agent-based models. These models can be constructed by non-experts by composing pre-built modular components called micro-behaviours. We are attempting to seed and nurture a Web 2.0 community to support modelling. Models, micro-behaviours, lesson plans, tutorials, and other supporting material can be shared, discussed, reviewed, rated, and tagged.

Download the draft.

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Our plans to be a COMPONENT in other web 2.0 sites

We just wrote a short plan about how we plan to get tagging, discussions, ratings, and the like by allowing others to embed the Modelling4All services into other web sites. See

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Using iGoogle and creating Google Gadgets

It seems as though Google Gadgets could save some development time. The idea is to restrict the GWT/ AJAX development to creating just the core functionality outlined in the modelling4all design document:

namely the Explore, Construct and Experiment page tabs.

By creating gadgets that both pull and push data between the modelling4all and Google servers.

With respect to push we should be able to create gadgets that display models running in an iGoogle page (java applets at this stage although we’re aware of the limitations here e.g. speed to load and browser compatibility) for instance. The gadget would point to the modelling4all server and select a model that is open access and perhaps recent.

With respect to pull then it might be possible to use for instance a google groups (web forum tool) to provide forum functionality within the pages served by the modelling4all server. The idea being that we can capture a user’s post and send it to a google forum, then read the forum posts back from google servers and display them back on the modelling4all site. This same principle might also be true for tagging and rating services.

So first thing to build is to get a Netlogo model displaying in a Google gadget.

To investigate is whether we can pull data from existing google applications e.g. blogger/ groups to display within our AJAX pages (seems like there’s authenticated Atom feeds).

Million dollar question: how can we do account management most easily.

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Java applets vs Flash

The Modelling4All web application needs to allow the modeller to run graphical simulations within the browser. The problem here is that Netlogo can already be used to create java applets but flash has a much higher penetration across browsers. This blog page sets out the stall very clearly:

Flash can also be used to create nicer looking UIs but Java is improving all the time. A design decision needs to be made…

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Computers allow researchers to develop a ‘feel’ for systems

From Sherry Turkle’s influential paper titled Seeing Through Computers I like this section:

In the physics department, the debate about simulation was even sharper. Only a small subset of real-world physics problems can be solved by purely mathematical, analytical techniques. Most require experimentation in which one conducts trials, evaluates results, and fits a curve through the resulting data. Not only does the computer make such inductive solutions easier, but as a practical matter, it also makes many of them possible for the first time. As one faculty member put it:

A student can take thousands of curves and develop a feeling for the data. Before the computer, nobody did that because it was too much work. Now, you can ask a question and say, “Let’s try it.” The machine does not distance students from the real, it brings them closer to it.

Because it pitches computers as tools for visualising and experimenting with systems that need to be understood mathematically. Not just at the advanced theoretical level but all through education – the learning of mathematics through using a wide range of systems of representation.

What I think is missing from this article is reference to simulations as being tools for cognitive offloading and the system of representation having an optimal relationship with the problem space and the individual or group researching the problem. Graphical simulations are powerful where emergent dynamics, iterations through generations and parallel processes are important, and where morphology is preserved in the simulation this can help too.

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Generative narrative game

I was struck by the elegance of the world without oil game. This is an exercise in envisioning the future where oil runs out over a period of time (currently up to week 32). The ‘game’ is defined as:

How do I participate?

(1) Imagine your life in this oil shock. (2) Create something on the Web to express your reality: a blog post, an image, a video, an audio file. (3) Tag it “worldwithoutoil” so others can find it. (4) Tell us about your creation by emailing it to us. Be sure to include a link to your story! Also: you can help guide others. Create a “thread” – a chain of links to WWO material that helps readers understand WWO – and email it to us.

Can anyone participate?

Yes. People go to the World Without Oil webpages, where they see the price of fuel and the effects of shortages week by week. They then create something on the web to express how their lives would look if this “alternate reality” were truly happening. They write blog entries, shoot photos and videos, then post them on the Internet with the tag “worldwithoutoil.” The result: we now have thousands of pieces of “evidence” of what an oil shock would look and feel like, from a very wide range of viewpoints. And we want that number to keep growing. We want to play it, so we don’t live it.

How do I experience World Without Oil?

There are two ways to live the WWO experience. One: enter the WWO Live Event Archive, using a link to one of the weeks. To go chronologically through the archive, enter at Week 1; to see the archive at the end, with all material available to you, enter at Week 32. NOTE: we’ve previewed material in the archive, to make it as kid-friendly as possible. Two: search the Internet for the tag “worldwithoutoil” or phrase “world without oil”, using your favorite search method.Thoughts:

  1. This narrative structure could be used to motivate modelling with simulation software
  2. The key here is that the game could be generative – as used by Zittrain (see also: Nicholas Carr and Ethan Zuckerman)
    1. Technologies are generative when they are:
      – Leveragable (they allow you to accomplish tasks that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished)
      – Adaptable (useful for multiple purposes)
      – Easy to master
      – Accessible to a broad audience.
  3. Seems important that there is an existing community of authors that the game can organise into a collective action

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