Starting with Python

No matter if you are an experienced NetLogo coder or have just started with modelling, learning how to code in a scripting language is likely to help you at some point when building a simulation. We have already discussed at length the pros and cons of using NetLogo versus other programming languages, but this is not a marriage, you can actually use both! There are certain aspects in which NetLogo beats any other platform (simplicity, fast development of models and many more), while in some situations it is just so much easier to use simple scripts (dealing with GIS, batch editing of files etc). Therefore, we’ve put together a quick guide on how to start with Python pointing out all the useful resources out there.

How to instal Python

It will take time, a lot of effort and nerves to install Python from scratch. Instead, go for one of the scientific distributions:

Anaconda is a free distribution containing all the useful packages, You can get it from here, and then simply follow the installation instructions here.

Enthought Canopy comes free for academic users. You can get it from here and there is a large training suite attached to it (

The very first steps

There’s a beginner Python Coursera module starting very soon: but if you missed it, don’t worry, they repeat regularly.


If you prefer to work with written text, go for ‘Think Python‘ – probably the best programming textbook ever created. You can get the pdf for free, here. It is likely to take a week of full time work to get through the book and do all the exercises but it is worth doing it in one go. It’s unbelievable how quickly one forgets  stuff and then gets lost in further chapters. There are loads of other books that can help you to learn Python: with the Head First Python you could teach a monkey to code but I found it so slow it was actually frustrating.


Alternatively, Python Programming for the absolute beginner is a fun one, as you learn to code by building computer games (the downside is I spent way too much time playing them). Finally, if you need some more practice, especially in more heavy-weight scientific computing I recommend doing some of the exercises from this course, and checking out Hans Fangohr’s textbook. There are many more beginner’s resources, you will find a comprehensive list of them here.

It is common that one gets stuck with a piece of code that just do not want to work. For a quick reference, the Python documentation is actually pretty clearly written and has examples.  Finally, StackOverflow is where you find help in more difficult situations. It’s a question-and-answer forum, but before you actually ask a question, check first if someone hasn’t done it already (in about 99% of cases they did). There is no shame in googling ‘how to index an array in python’, everyone does it and it saves a lot of time.

How to get from the for-loop into agents

There is a gigantic conceptual chasm every modeller needs to jump over: going from the simple to the complex. Once you learnt the basics, such as the for-loops, list comprehension, reading and writing files etc. it is hard to imagine how a complex simulation can be built from such simple blocks.


If you’re feeling suicidal you could try to build one from scratch. However,  there are easier ways. To start with, the fantastic ‘Think Python’ has a sequel! It’s called ‘Think Complexity’ and, again, you can get the pdf for free, here. This is a great resource, giving you a thorough tour of complexity science applications and the exercises will give you enough coding experience to build your own models.

The second way is to build up on already existing models (btw, this is not cheating, this is how most of computer science works).  There is a fantastic library of simulations written in Python  called PYCX (Python-based CompleX systems simulations). It contains sample codes of complex systems simulations written in plain Python. Similarly the OpenABM repository has at least some models written in Python.

And once you see it can be done, there’s nothing there to stop you!

Going further – Python productivity tools

There are several tools which make working in Python much easier (they all come with the  Anaconda and Enthought distributions).


Visualisations: Matplotlib is the standard Python library for graphs. I am yet to find its limits and it is surprisingly easy to use. Another useful resource is the colour brewer.  It’s a simple website that gives you different colour palettes  to represent different type of data (in hex, rgb and cmyk so ready to be plugged into your visualisations straight away). It can save you a lot of time otherwise wasted on trying to decide if the orange goes ok with the blue…

The Debugger: The generic python debugger is called ‘pdb’ and you can find a great tutorial on how to use it here. I personally prefer the ipdb debugger, if only because it actually prints stuff in colour (you appreciate it after a few hours of staring at the code); it works exactly the same as the pdb debugger.

The IPython Notebook: The IPython notebook is a fantastic platform for developing code interactively and then sharing it with other people (you can find the official tutorial here). Its merits may not be immediately obvious but after a while there’s almost no coming back.

Sumatra: Sooner or later everyone experiences the problem of ‘which version of the code produced the results???‘. Thankfully there is a solution to it and it’s called Sumatra. It automatically tracks different versions of the code and links the output files to them.

Data Analysis: You can do data analysis straight in Python but there are tools that make it easier.


I haven’t actually used Pandas myself yet, but it’s the talk of the town at the moment so probably worth checking out.

GIS: Python is the language of choice for GIS, hence the simple integration. If you are using ESRI ArcMap, create your algorithm in the model builder, go to -> export -> to python (see a simple tutorial here, and a more comprehensive one on how to use model builder and python here). You can do pretty much the same thing in QGIS (check out their tutorial, here). On top of that, you can use Python straight from the console (see a tutorial here).

5 thoughts on “Starting with Python”

  1. Love this overview! I am going to teach an introduction to python crash-course this week and this is a great article to point people to for further learning material.

  2. Thank you for the great post. I am currently at the stage you called “from the simple to the complex” and found many helpful hints. Especially the PYCS and Allan Downey’s book look promising. Can’t wait to give it a try!

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