Serializing populations

Some simulations can take a long time to run and the part you are really interested in analyzing isn’t until closer to the end. You’d like to save the state of the simulation just before the interesting stuff and then restart from that spot. This would allow you to iterate more quickly on different intervention strategies or just trying to understand what the simulation is doing better. EMOD supports this ability with a feature called “serialized populations.”

Serializing is the idea of saving the state of object so that there is enough information to recreate that object later. Deserializing is the reverse, where you create a new object but initialize it with the state that was saved. For more information, see serialization. This is analogous to the sleep feature in your computer: when you put it to sleep, it serializes data of the objects running the system; when you start it back up again, it recreates what was running from that saved state.

The serialized population feature in EMOD allows you to save the state of the people and restart from that saved state. This state includes the person’s health, infections, any interventions that they have, and more. This is especially useful when you need to create a population that has natural immunity to a pathogen (i.e. the pathogen is not novel and the population is not naive.) It is important to note that only events that have already occurred will be saved in the serialized population; for example, if the person has received only the first dose of a two dose vaccine when the simulation was serialized, the person will only have that one dose when the simulation is deserialized. The logic to give the person the second dose will still need to be added to the simulation.

Being able to serialize the population is a powerful feature and can save the researcher lots of time. However, it does have it is idiosyncrasies. The following information is intended to help the user understand how serialization works, how to write a file, how to read from a serialized file, and what parameters you can change when reading from a serialized file. For more information on the format of serialized files, see Serialized population file.

Example use cases

Serialization is useful for a variety of use-cases; we have outlined some common examples below.

Try out different interventions (Simple burn-in)

To create a population with an endemic disease, one option is to start with a naïve population and run simulation till disease dynamics reach an equilibrium. These simulation burn-in methods can take several years of simulation time until a steady state is reached. Saving the state to a file and continuing from this state reduces the time needed to model the effect of different interventions.

Burn-in is especially effective when exposure and individual immunity is age structured within the population. For example, if older individuals have higher antibody levels than younger individuals, due to prolonged exposure.

Ultimate Report

In case existing reports don’t have what you need, a serialized population file contains all the internal states of the people in the population. By saving serialized population files periodically and then extracting the data from these files, it is possible to gain very deep insights into the simulation. The extracted “report data” can then be processed with dtk_post_process or analyzers such that you only save the extracted data. The serialized population files can be very big so you could use this mechanism extract the data you want and then delete the large files.

Reconfigure (currently only larval habitats)

When a simulation is saved to file and then loaded again, the state is exactly the same as it was at the moment it was saved. There are options to reconfigure the simulation and read parameters from config.json instead of the serialized file. This is called “masking” and is controlled by the parameters Serialization_Mask_Node and Serialization_Mask_Node_Read. These options are currently very limited and only work for larval habitats.

Create a synthetic population

Sometimes you want to create a large spatial scenario but you don’t want to wait to do burn-in just to get a population with reasonable immune systems. One way you could solve this problem is to run a smaller one-node scenario that has a prevalence similar to the overall area you are trying to model. You do a burn-in with this smaller scenario to generate a representative population and serialize that population at the end. You could then use the people in this representative scenario to generate a larger scenario and larger serialized file.

The state of all the individuals in a simulation is saved in a serialized population file. Python libraries exist to manipulate the file and can be used to create, remove, or change attributes of an individual.

Calibration Chaining

You can calibrate for a first period of time and then save the file. From that starting point, you can calibrate for the next period of time and so on.

Serialized population file

The information below describes how serialized files work. For more information on formatting serialized files, see Serialized population file.

Internal state

A serialized population file contains the internal state of the objects used to create the population in that realization. This internal state includes lots of implementation details that are not really meant for user consumption. With the right tools, you can open a file and look at its contents. The core of the information is in JSON format. For more detailed information, see Serialized population file.

These implementation details are frequently the things that cause the data in the file to change. When adding a new feature or fixing a bug, the developer might need to add new state to an object that needs to be maintained from timestep to timestep. This new state could be related to a new model or something that just makes the model run faster. Either way, this new information needs to be written to and read from the file. Hence, if you are updating from an older version to a newer one, you will likely need to regenerate your serialized files.


The file contains the state of a human population and, for vector or malaria simulations, a vector population. All the nodes that belong to the simulation and the individuals that belong to a node are saved. Furthermore, each individual has an internal state and certain characteristics that belong to it, like infections, drugs or interventions. Thus, interventions that were distributed before the population was saved are still active. Node-level interventions or event coordinators are not saved because they are not part of the population: they can change they state of a population but are not part of it.

Similar to individuals, vectors and their habitats are saved.


Serializing a simulation also works on a multi-core system: one file per core is written. To continue the simulation all the created files must be defined in config.json and must use the same number of cores.

Upgrading to new executable

There is a strong dependency between the program code and the serialized file. Changing the EMOD executable or modifying source code (especially removing, renaming or adding variables) will require a rerun of the burn-in.

File sizes

Serialized population files can be quite large - sometimes on the order of gigabytes. This is mostly impacted by the size of your population (and for vector or malaria simulations, the size of the vector population). Since the file already makes use of compression, compressing a serialized file will provide minimal benefit.

The size of the file can become a memory issue when reading from the serialized file. Reading large files, for example over 5 gigabytes, requires a lot of memory to both read the file and create the objects from that file. The amount of RAM you have available for each of your simulations should factor into how large of a file you want to use. If this is a concern, one can set the parameter logLevel_Memory to DEBUG when running the simulation to serialize. This will tell you how much memory will be needed for the simulation after you read it back in. However, it does not include the memory needed to read the file. If you are allowed 8-GB of memory per core, your simulation is using 7-GB, and your file is 2-GB, you could be in danger of using more memory than you are allowed.