School of Environment

Associate Professor David O'Sullivan

Job title: Associate Professor
Phone: 64 9 373 7599 ext 84963
Office: Rm 689, Human Sciences Building
Postal: School of Environment,
The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand


BA / MA (Cantab), MSc (Glasgow), PhD (London)


My full CV is available here.

I studied Engineering at the University of Cambridge, and worked as a professional engineer for eight years in the London area. I 'discovered' GIS by chance at a professional meeting, in an image processing magazine, in an article about the clever things (clever in 1996, that is) that the Norwegian State Mapping Agency was doing with GPS and GIS technology, and was prompted to 'go back to school'. I got my MSc and PhD degrees in quick succession and was lucky enough to land my first academic position at Penn State in 2000. After a few years there we moved again, arriving at the University of Auckland in 2004. With my research interests focusing on the application of GIS technologies and methods to the study of urban issues, Auckland is an exciting place to be.



My teaching is focused on GIS and related methods. Courses I have some involvement with include:

  • Geography 250 Geographical Research in Practice (contributing lecturer)
  • Geography 318 GIS for Human Environments (coordinator and lecturer)
  • Geography 771 Geographic Information Analysis (coordinator and lecturer)
  • Environmental Science 704 Spatial and Environmental Modelling (joint coordinator and lecturer with Dr George Perry)
  • Geography 779 GIS Customization and Programming (coordinator and lecturer)

Although the topics I teach tend to be technical ones, I focus students' attention on the advantages and disadvantages of the methods available for different problems, so that they can become not merely competent users of those methods, but critical and informed ones also.


Research Interests

My research interests are in dynamic simulation modelling of geographical phenomena. A particular focus of my recent work has been on the shifting residential locations of different socio-economic groups, with Auckland's increasing social and ethnic diversity providing an ideal setting for these interests. More recently I have also become interested in urban ecology.

Technically, I focus on new approaches to simulation models that capture the complexity of how human actors in urban settings perceive their surroundings. For example in many urban simulations, the city is represented as a grid of cells, and change occurs with respect to the characteristics of grid cells and their immediate neighbouring cells in the grid. This is an unsatisfactory way to represent urban systems. In current work, I am developing the idea of neighbourhoods to include more complex basic units (such as city blocks, land parcels, school zones, etc.) and the complicated spatial relationships among them. In time, I hope that simulations using this sort of framework may enable us to understand better the effects on urban change of how neighbourhoods are defined and perceived. A prime example is the role that the changing perception of a neighbourhood has on the process of gentrification.

I have worked in the past with cellular automata models, but have recently become more interested in agent-based models. Agent-based models are particularly appropriate for studying phenomena such as urban property markets, residential segregation by race, ethnicity and class, transportation problems, and health.

All of this work is set within two broader themes:

First, is the potential impact of ideas from 'complexity science' on an interdisciplinary field such as geography. Complexity science focuses attention on many characteristic behaviours of dynamic systems such as self-organization, emergence, path dependence, sensitivity to initial conditions, which had previously been ignored or 'simplified' out of existence in science. Geographers have long recognized these phenomena. I therefore feel that there is room for productive exchanges between geographers of all persuasions (human, physical, qualitative, quantitative) and complexity studies more generally.

Second, and related to the previous theme, is the importance of understanding the role of simulation models in contemporary science. Models play an increasingly important role in understanding the behaviour of the complex interconnected social, ecological and physical environments in which we live. Therefore, it is important that we understand both the limitations and potential of simulation models as decision-making tools.



Currently, I am involved in editorial duties on a number of journals:


Recent Publications

O'Sullivan, D. 2014 in press. Spatial Network Analysis. In Handbook of Regional Science eds M. M. Fischer & P. Nijkamp. Springer Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London.

O'Sullivan, D. and G. L. W. Perry. 2013. Spatial Simulation: Exploring Pattern and Process. Wiley, Chichester, England.

Millington, J. D. A., D. O'Sullivan and G. L. W. Perry. 2012. Model histories: Narrative explanation in generative simulation modelling. Geoforum, 43(6), 1025-1034.

Mueller, S., D. J. Exeter, H. Petousis-Harris, N. Turner, D. O'Sullivan, C. D. Buck. 2012. Measuring disparities in immunisation coverage among children in New Zealand. Health and Place, 18(6), 1217-1223.

Hong, S.-Y. and D. O'Sullivan. 2012. Detecting ethnic residential clusters using an optimisation clustering method. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 26(8), 1257-1277.

O'Sullivan, D., J. Millington, G. Perry & J. Wainwright. 2012. 'Agent-Based Models—Because They’re Worth It?' In Agent-Based Models of Geographical Systems eds. A. J. Heppenstall, A. T. Crooks, L. M. See & M. Batty, 109-123. Springer Netherlands.

Mavoa, S., K. Witten, T. McCreanor, D. O’Sullivan. 2012. GIS based destination accessibility via public transit and walking in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of Transport Geography, 20(1), 15-22.

Xue, J., W. Friesen, and D. O’Sullivan. 2012. Diversity in Chinese Auckland: Hypothesising Multiple Ethnoburbs. Population, Space and Place, 18, 579-595.

Mateos, P., P. A. Longley, and D. O'Sullivan. 2011. Ethnicity and Population Structure in Personal Naming Networks, PLoS ONE, 6(9) e22943

Pearson, J., R. Lay-Yee, P. Davis, D. O’Sullivan, M. von Randow, N. Kerse, and S. Pradhan. 2011. Primary care in an aging society: Building and testing a microsimulation model for policy purposes. Social Science Computer Review, 29(1), 21-36.

O’Sullivan, D. and G. L. W. Perry. 2009. A discrete space model for continuous space dispersal processes. Ecological Informatics, 4(2), 57-68.

O’Sullivan, D. 2009. Changing neighborhoods – neighborhoods changing: a framework for spatially explicit agent-based models of social systems. Sociological Methods and Research, 37(4), 498-530.

Reardon, S. F., C. R. Farrell, S. A. Matthews, D. O’Sullivan, K. Bischoff, G. Firebaugh. 2009. Race and space in the 1990s: changes in the geographic scale of racial residential segregation. 1990-2000. Social Science Research, 38, 55-70.

Lee, B. A., S. F. Reardon, G. Firebaugh, C. R. Farrell, S. A. Matthews, and D. O'Sullivan. 2008. Beyond the census tract: patterns and determinants of racial segregation at multiple geographic scales. American Sociological Review, 73, 766-791.

Reardon, S. F., S. A. Matthews, D. O’Sullivan, B. A. Lee, G. Firebaugh, C. R. Farrell, K. Bischoff. 2008. The geographic scale of metropolitan segregation. Demography, 45(3), 489-514.

O'Sullivan, D. 2008. Geographical information science: agent-based models. Progress in Human Geography, 32(2), 541-50.


Graduate Students

Phil Donovan (PhD candidate) Impact of walking accessibility on urban property markets (co-supervised with Prof. Karen Witten - Massey University).

Alan Cheung (PhD candidate) Graph-based measures of landscape change (co-supervised with Prof. Gary Brierley).

Ben Davies (PhD candidate) Agent-based models in archaeology (co-supervised with Prof. Simon Holdaway, Archaeology).

Cheng Liu (PhD candidate) Simulation of gentrification including both housing cycles (filtering) and household life-cycles.

Suzanne Mavoa (PhD candidate) How the definition of neighbourhoods affects studies of health and physical activity (co-supervised with Prof. Karen Witten - Massey University).

Babak Mahdavi (PhD 2014) Regional scale simulation models of shifting patterns of residential location in Auckland

Phil Donovan (MSc 2012) Simulation of the impact on urban morphology of the relative priority given to roads v public transport.

Fraser Morgan (PhD 2011) Simulation of land development and sprawl in Auckland using agent-based models.

Seong-Yun Hong (PhD 2011) Residential patterns of Koreans in Auckland (co-supervised with Assoc. Prof. Hong-Key Yoon).

Chris Rudge (MSc 2011) Simulation of succesion dynamics in New Zealand forests (co-supervised with Dr George Perry).

Jingjing Xue (MSc 2008) Changing spatial patterns of the Chinese communities in Auckland (co-supervised with Dr Ward riesen).


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