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School of Geography

Meet the researcher - Dr Alison Heppenstall

Alison's research interests are focused on the development of AI methods (especially agent-based modelling) for understanding processes and evolution of geographical systems. In particular she is interested in methods for incorporating human behaviour in individual-level models and developing approaches to improve synthetic population generation.

1.   Why did you become interested in research?

I’ve always been innately curious (nosey?) and was one of those children who wanted to pull apart and put back together a toy to see how it worked.  Research allows me to do this everyday, but my toys are computational models and whatever application I’m working on!

2.    What are you currently working on?

I am a methods person and a lot of the work I do is in the generic area of Geocomputation. I focus mainly on a technique called Agent-based modelling; essentially it’s the SIM’s for academics. I can build my own individual-level population, give them characteristics and behavioural rules and send them off into the (computer generated) world. At the moment I’m working on developing ways to incorporate more realistic human behaviour into these models in a range of applications:  simulating school choice; behaviour of criminals; religious activism, uptake of green energy; active travel, dispersion of early modern humans. It’s’ the range of applications that I work with that make this area so engaging.

3.   What is the most important finding from your research to date?

From a technique perspective, I was lucky enough to develop one of the first successful explicitly spatial agent-based models in the field. I was also closely involved in developing agent models to incorporate some aspects of human behaviour in the area of retail and crime.  From an application perspective, I co-authored work on developing a model for school choice; the model results far outperformed that of the system currently used by the LEA we were working with. 

4.   What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Hmmm. My PhD work involved developing economic agent-based models and linking to genetic algorithms to breed optimal strategies. That was pretty cool – however, the application area was petrol prices and this led to me being featured on page 3 of Petrol Forecourt magazine – something I’ve yet to live down. Working at Leeds has afforded me the opportunity to work with some great people and be involved in a wide variety of projects. My discipline is rapidly developing and being able to engage and be closely involved in new research ideas is very rewarding.

 5.   What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a research career in your field?

 Stay curious and take risks. Be open to new ideas and don’t overcomplicate:  “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Einstein). 

6.   What is the most common question you are asked by non-researchers?

Do you play computer games all day? Star Wars or Star Trek? Actually, I prefer Doctor Who…

7.   What is your favourite hobby?

Brass bands! I have played Eb Bass (Tuba) since the age of 10 when my grandfather needed one for his band. I’ve played ever since, currently with Otley Brass Band, and was semi-professional for a while.  I’ve been lucky enough to play with national orchestras, guest with Championship bands, play on film soundtracks, in TV soaps, and in national competitions. 

For more on Alison's research and publications visit her homepage

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