UC Berkeley graduate student creates model-sharing program

Levy Yun/Staff
Scott Fortmann-Roe, the creator of InsightMaker.com.

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So you want to lose weight. You could try Weight Watchers, or you could take the unconventional route and create a prediction model for weight loss that factors in calorie reduction and your metabolism in order to reach your desired weight.

That is just one way researchers might make use of Insight Maker, a web-based modeling tool created by a UC Berkeley student.

Scott Fortmann-Roe, a third year graduate student in the department of environmental science, policy & management, created Insight Maker three years ago. The program allows anyone with access to the Internet to create and share interactive models.

“By creating a freely accessible repository for sharing and creating models we can hopefully get more voices involved in the modeling process,” Fortmann-Roe said in an email. “The more people taking part in the scientific process; the better, I believe, the resulting science.”

The program, which has attracted more than 10,000 registered users since its inception, creates simulation models that are applicable to everything from business to biology.

Fortmann-Roe said that he created Insight Maker because he wanted to make models addressing environmental challenges but that he found inadequacies in the presentation of models he had seen in research papers.

“I’ve had a situation where I’ve contacted the author of the model … to get the correct model and they say ‘sorry! but I’ve lost the model files and even I can’t tell you how to make the model any more,’” Fortmann-Roe said in an email.

Gene Bellinger, creator and director of Systemswiki.org, a learning thread for different systems thinking concepts, added that typically only people in academia have access to research findings. Systems thinking is the process of understanding how different systems interact with each other.

“Simply put, ‘normal’ people aren’t exposed to academic thinking,” Bellinger said. “But a program like Insight Maker allows anyone to see these models and access that information.”

Bellinger, who has been working with modeling techniques for 20 years, also stated that current modeling methods lack interactive components.

“Looking at a picture of a model isn’t enough to make it ‘click’ in the brain,” Bellinger said. “But being able to interact with the information … that’s what makes the difference.”

Bellinger, who created the weight-loss model mentioned earlier, said that Insight Maker is unique because it allows users to share models. Users can look for “insights” — models created by other users — on the site, which they can manipulate for themselves.

Geoff McDonnell, a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at the University of New South Wales, is one of the most active users on the site and has employed the program to create various models in healthcare and other related fields.

“Most modeling systems use Flash or other programs that are not universal and not web-centric technology,” McDonnell said. “There’s a huge difference for modeling by transforming it from server-side to browser-side.”

McDonnell said that he discovered Insight Maker two years ago and has since created hundreds of models on topics ranging from national health care to hospital and individual infection transmission.

As part of his senior thesis, Fortmann-Roe developed a similar downloadable modeling program called Simgua. While he was in Poland on a Fulbright scholarship after graduation, he refined Simgua, which eventually evolved into the web-based Insight Maker.

“I began Insight Maker with the goal of helping to democratize science,” Fortmann-Roe said in an email. “Too often mathematical scientists and modelers work in relative isolation from their subject matter and there is often a disconnect between those who know the most about the system and those working on modeling it.”

Pooja Mhatre is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].