3 Jul 2012

Invited Talk at iEMMs 2012: "Context in Environmental Modelling - the room around the elephant"

This paper is related to the papers:

but covers new topics and illustrations, working towards a more general formulation of the key problem and possible responses.

The slides are at: http://www.slideshare.net/BruceEdmonds/context-in-environmental-modelling-the-room-around-the-elephant

There is a video at: (last half of it)


Behaviour in society and the responses from the environment are both highly context-dependent.  There is a lot of evidence that hyman cognition and behaviour depends sharply on the percieved context.  Human collective and social behaviour is even more so, indeed may be structured around co-determined contexts that are then entrenched within our training, infrastructure and habits.  Similarly ecological niches, where species adapt to each other can be highly specific to a particular set of environmental affordences.  The response to a pertabation (e.g. reduction of a resource or introduction of a new species) depends highly on the environmental context.

However, to a very large extent, our formal models of the environment and of our interaction with the environment are context-free.  It is often simply assumed that the variations due to specific contexts can be dealt with as a kind of "noise" to a main trend or interaction.  Whilst this maybe sometimes the case, this assumption is rarely justified by any evidence or indeed convincing argument .  Often it seems that context is ignored simply because it seems too difficult to do otherwise, so work proceeds simply on the hope that context-dependency can be treated as a kind of noise.  Other strategies to avoid the issue of context include keeping to within a single, very restricted context (which prevents any general conclusions) or remaining in the world of analogy and natural language discourse (where context-dependency is masked by the innate ability of humans to reapply analogies on the fly). I argue that this must often not be the case and that a collection of context dependent interactions if treated in this way, can result in very different outcomes, especially when one needs to scale any conclusions.

I then seek to show some possible ways forward, ways to include some of the context-dependency in our techniques and models.  These include kinds of agent-based modelling that include context-awareness in the agents and actors, kinds of data-mining that could be used to search for patterns in a context-dependent manner, and new techniques from the field of visual analytics to visualise and interact with data via a visual interface in a context-friendly manner.

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