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Computing, Science and IT Research: SimCity for real
SimCity might be the name of a computer game, but researchers in the UK are creating a real-life demographic map of the UK. Urban planners will be able to play SimCity for real, as Sara Goodwins reveals
In towns and cities, the infrastructure – schools, healthcare, emergency services, public transport, etc – is managed by urban planners. Such decision makers are constrained by financial restrictions and have to balance limited resources with local demand for their services. In the computer game SimCity , urban planners play with urban environments in very much the same way. However, at Leeds University, fiction is becoming reality.
MoSeS leads the way
Under a project called Modelling and Simulation for e-Social Science (MoSeS), researchers are using data recorded in the UK 2001 census to develop a representative model of the UK population. The census data are enhanced with information gathered from additional data sources, including:
• the General Household Survey, a continuous annual survey of people living in private households conducted by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS)
• Hospital Episode Statistics, providing information on the care provided in England by UK National Health Service (NHS) hospitals and for NHS patients treated elsewhere
• records of journeys made to and from work
• local house prices
• migration patterns.
Under UK privacy laws, no individual or household may be identifiable, so personal details are removed. In all other respects, the picture is accurate and remarkably comprehensive.
The simulated population is being projected forward to 2031, using a combination of static and dynamic ageing:
• Static ageing is a method by which the core database is resampled to match a change in the population distribution. For example, if government projections show an expected growth in particular communities, the population of the simulation would be adjusted accordingly from existing records.
• Dynamic ageing is a process by which household formation, movements in the labour market, etc are modelled explicitly for individual members of the simulated population. The modules used in MoSeS include ageing, mortality, changes in health, marriage, fertility, leaving home, emigration, immigration and moving in or out of the region under consideration. Dynamic ageing requires greater computing resources, but is potentially far more effective.
The UK e-Science Programme
In the UK, research is funded through research councils devoted to particular specialist areas. There is therefore an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and so on. The UK e-Science Programme is a co-ordinated initiative involving all the research councils plus the UK Government’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Various models can be created to explore the effect of different demographic trends and to test the consequences of policy decisions. Dr Mark Birkin, from the Geography Department at the University of Leeds, is developing the model with an interdisciplinary team drawn from computing, transport and health.
Dr Birkin comments: ‘We can profile populations area by area and forecast attributes, such as health status, employment and car ownership, ten or twenty years ahead. In future, we’ll be able to project the effects of policy change and help policymakers evaluate the impact of the decisions they take.’
Three main applications for MoSeS are planned, although the central model, commonly called the microsimulation, can be adapted for many different applications. First, a model simulating changes in personal finance will be applied to the microsimulation to examine their effects both at a local and national level. Several factors need to be considered, including:
• a shortfall in pension payments
• an increase in equity release products to generate annuity income
• a reduction in the wealth transferred between generations either as gifts or in bequests
• a potential reduction in house prices
• a potential rise in interest rates
• a rise in the number of households
• a decrease in the size of households.
The simulation model will explore the interaction of these potential events over the next decade. The model should be able to detect and predict the different impacts of changes in personal finance on different regions of the UK. Similar simulation models are also planned for exploring transport and healthcare provision. For example, transport planners expect more passenger traffic through airports in the north of the UK, while ship-borne freight is also expected to rise in the same region.
At the same time, the same planners are also aiming to reduce road use in general and along highly congested routes in particular. Simulations taking into account possible alternative plans would be easily handled by MoSeS technology.
Healthcare provision is an area that, because of its complexity, is notoriously difficult to manage efficiently. Care for the elderly, for example, is provided by doctors, hospitals, care homes, the social services, local voluntary organisations, and informal support from family and neighbours. Because of the disparity of the number of people and organisations involved, it is extremely difficult to discover the experience of individuals. MoSeS can not only provide a balanced picture of what is happening and where, but could also model different possibilities and how the service could be improved.
Real experience from simulations
The MoSeS simulated cities are managed in exactly the same way as real cities by decision makers using models to explore different limitations. Virtual cities become copies of the real thing and urban planners are able to explore the various options open to them without wasting valuable resources or taking decisions that might take years to rectify if they are wrong. The project builds real experience from the manipulation of simulated environments. It helps decision makers evaluate the outcome of different decisions and draw conclusions from real information.
Other forecasting projects
Forecasting future events is not restricted to MoSeS. Across the UK, numerous universities are involved in similar projects. The Grid for Ocean Diagnostics, Interactive Visualisation and Analysis (GODIVA) at Southampton University, for example, models climate and the oceans to predict climate change. The University of Cambridge and the West Anglia Cancer Network are developing Telemedicine to help early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The Universities of Leeds, Oxford, Sheffield and York are working with commercial partners on the Distributed Aircraft Maintenance Environment (DAME) to predict which aircraft will need maintenance, what that maintenance will be and ensure that plane, spare parts and engineers arrive at the right place at the right time, wherever that may be in the world.
What makes the MoSeS project and its like possible is its use of grid computing. Academics and planners have been trying to simulate real cities for more than 40 years, but have been hampered by the lack of sufficient computational resources. The data needed for such a huge model are held by different agencies in different locations and are often in different formats.
‘Historically, people have assembled data on a single PC or workstation,’ says Dr Birkin. ‘Grid computing enables researchers to access multiple databases from remote locations.’ By using the capacity of a number of different computers linked together in a grid, generic simulation models become both easier to develop and quicker to update.
The Internet and the web help people share information and transfer data quickly and easily. Grids enable multidisciplinary teams, often crossing traditional boundaries, to share such things as processing power and storage space. They provide the individuals and organisations within each grid with almost limitless computing power, and have the potential to smooth out inequalities by making similar resources available to everyone.
Unlike the web, which is a single entity, there are several grids, each a virtual organisation made up by linking the computing capacity of trusted users to expand available resources. Of course, there are security implications, but the emphasis is on security coupled with sharing.
E-science – the way forward
Grid computing is the infrastructure within which e-science works. E-science itself is about research and innovation, while grid computing is the tool which makes such research faster, better or different. Using grid computing, e-science provides researchers with a whole set of new possibilities. Far larger volumes of data can be handled and they can be processed more quickly. What makes the UK unique is its tendency to use a combination of the web plus grid computing within its e-science infrastructure. Taking just one example, the University of Manchester has developed GridSite to bridge the gap between the web and grids. GridSite allows users to identify themselves to websites so that members of a virtual organisation can be granted rights to edit and upload web pages, images and binary files. In other countries, web communities and grid communities tend to work separately.
Professor David de Roure, Head of Group in Grid and Pervasive Computing at Southampton University and Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, says: ‘There’s a huge amount of research needed into how new technologies can be used in
e-science. At the moment, different communities are still trying to reach understanding about each other’s problems. There are whole new areas in computer science opening up to research and a huge number of research areas that need to be addressed. PhD opportunities are expanding all over the place.’
The UK’s largest scientific grid is GridPP, a collaboration of particle physicists and computing scientists from 19 UK universities, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics located near Geneva. New funding has just been granted by the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) for 10,000 new processors across GridPP. Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive Officer of PPARC, explains: ‘The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is just about to recreate conditions last seen just after the Big Bang. Scientists all around the UK are eager to take part in the likely scientific breakthroughs. Using GridPP, they will take part in the exciting discoveries that will be made in particle physics in the next few years.’
Not that any grid is restricted in its use. Professor Tony Doyle, based at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow and GridPP Project Leader, comments: ‘When we have spare capacity, we’re happy to share it with other scientists worldwide. In the WISDOM (World-wide In Silico Docking On Malaria) project, for example, we contributed more than two million hours of computer time to help find drugs to combat malaria.’
The MoSeS project is only one of many burgeoning within the UK e-Science Programme. Dr Bob Mann, Programme Director for the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in E-science programme, says: ‘Students come from a broad spectrum of academic backgrounds across science and computer science, and combine their previous experiences in new ways. For example, this year, we have a former astrophysics student about to start a project applying e-science technologies to aid the study of cystic fibrosis.’
In biblical terms, Moses led his people to the promised land. In e-science terms, MoSeS seems to be doing very much the same.
Sara Goodwins is a freelance writer specialising in education and business.