Simulating Data using a Discrete-Time Approach

Robin Denz


In this small vignette, we introduce the sim_discrete_time() function, which can be used to generate arbitrarily complex longitudinal data with discrete points in time. Just as the sim_from_dag() function contained in this package, it allows any mixture of continuous, binary, categorical, count, or time-to-event data. The main advantage of the sim_discrete_time() function is that it naturally generates longitudinal data without the need to define a node for each variable at each point in time. It also makes the generation of complex time-to-event data a lot easier. Features such as time-dependent effects, time-dependent covariates, any form of censoring, recurrent-events and competing events may be included in a straightforward fashion.

What is Discrete-Time Simulation and Why Use it?

A discrete-time simulation (DTS) consists of two steps. First, a bunch of entities (usually but not necessarily people) are created. Afterwards, the change of the states of these entities over time is simulated by increasing the simulation time iteratively in discrete steps, updating the states at each step (Tang et al. 2020). For example, suppose that the entities are people and that we are interested in the states age and death. Every time the simulation time increases, the age of each person increases with it, raising the probability of death. At every step we check if each person is still alive. If they die, the state of death changes from 0 to 1. If everyone is dead, we stop the simulation. The schematic flow of DTS is shown in the figure below.

A generalized flow-chart of the discrete-time simulation approach

A generalized flow-chart of the discrete-time simulation approach

The sim_discrete_time() directly implements this workflow. A data set at \(t = 0\) is either simulated using the sim_from_dag() function or supplied directly by the user (using the t0_data argument). This data set is then updated according to the time-dependent nodes added to the dag using node_td() calls. Below we give a short example on how this works in practice. A more realistic (and therefore more complex) example can be found in a different vignette.

A DTS can be seen as a special case of simulation modeling. It is closely related to dynamic microsimulation (Spooner et al. 2021), discrete-event simulation (Banks 2014) and agent-based modeling (Ugur & Saka 2006). As such, it requires a lot of input from the users. In general, the sim_discrete_time() function is not an “off-the-shelves” function which can be used “as-is” to simulate data. In most cases, the user needs to write their own functions to actually use this function effectively. This is the price one has to pay for the nearly unlimited flexibility of this simulation methodology. Nevertheless, it may be the only valid simulation strategy when the user is interested in highly complex longitudinal time-to-event data.

Defining the DAG

Similar to the sim_from_dag() function, the user needs to specify the nodes of the underlying causal DAG to use this function. All variables in a DTS can be categorized into three categories: t0_root nodes, t0_child_nodes and tx_nodes.

The t0_root_nodes and t0_child_nodes arguments are specified using a DAG object and calls to the node() function as usual when using the sim_from_dag() function. In fact, they are simply passed to it under the hood. Their role in the data generation process is only to obtain the initial data set we need for \(t = 0\). It would be equivalent to call the sim_from_dag() function manually and then pass the output to the t0_data argument. We therefore won’t go into more detail here. More information about how to correctly specify this DAG can be found in the documentation of the sim_from_dag() and node() functions or the associated vignette.

A Simple Example - One Terminal Event

Let us consider a very simple example first. Suppose we want to generate data according to the following causal DAG:

A small DAG with time-varying age

A small DAG with time-varying age

Here, sex is a time-invariant variable, whereas age and death are not. Suppose that each tick of the simulation corresponds to a duration of one year. Then, naturally, people will age one year on every simulation tick. We assume that sex and age have a direct causal effect on the probability of death, regardless of the time. Once people are dead, they stay dead (no reincarnation allowed).

If we want to use this structure in the sim_discrete_time() function, we first have to generate an initial dataset for the state of the population at \(t = 0\) as described above. We do this by first specifying the t0_root_nodes as follows:


dag <- empty_dag() +
  node("age", type="rnorm", mean=30, sd=5) +
  node("sex", type="rbernoulli", p=0.5)

We assume that age is normally distributed and that we have equal numbers of each sex. This information is enough to specify the data set at \(t = 0\). Now we only need to add additional time-dependent nodes using the node_td() function and we are ready. First, we define a function that increases the age of all individuals by 1 at each step:

node_advance_age <- function(data) {
  return(data$age + 1)

Next, we need to define a function that will return the probability of death for every individual at time \(t\), given their current age and their sex. We use a logistic regression model, but make it explicit for exemplary reasons:

prob_death <- function(data) {
  score <- -10 + 0.15 * data$age + 0.25 * data$sex
  prob <- 1/(1 + exp(-score))

Now we can add those nodes to the DAG as follows:

dag <- dag +
  node_td("age", type="advance_age", parents="age") +
  node_td("death", type="time_to_event", parents=c("age", "sex"),
          prob_fun=prob_death, event_duration=Inf, save_past_events=TRUE,

We simply pass the node_advance_age() function to the type argument of the age node. death is a time-to-event node, because it’s an event which is generated from a probability at each step in time. That probability, as defined here, is determined by the prob_death function we defined earlier. We set event_duration to Inf to make this a permanent event (once you are dead, there is no going back).

To visualize the resulting DAG, we can use the associated plot() method:


To finally generate the desired data, we simply call the sim_discrete_time() function:

sim_dat <- sim_discrete_time(n_sim=10, dag=dag, max_t=50, check_inputs=FALSE)

By setting max_t=50, we are letting this simulation run for 50 (simulated) years. The results look like this:

#>         age    sex death_event death_time   .id
#>       <num> <lgcl>      <lgcl>      <int> <int>
#> 1: 79.81243   TRUE        TRUE         27     1
#> 2: 72.12698   TRUE        TRUE         13     2
#> 3: 77.57016  FALSE        TRUE         31     3
#> 4: 82.32593  FALSE        TRUE         16     4
#> 5: 75.47951  FALSE        TRUE         17     5
#> 6: 78.61284  FALSE        TRUE          9     6

It is easy to see that all people died over the course of those 50 years by looking at the death_event column. The death_time column records the time at which each person died.

If we want to graphically display a flow diagram of the data-generation mechanism, we may use the plot() method associated with the output of the sim_discrete_time() function like this:


This particular example could be simulated in a much easier fashion, without relying on a discrete-time approach, because age increases linearly and the model for death is exactly the same regardless of time. DTS is more useful when truly complex data structures are required. Below we will extend this simple example a little bit, but we will still keep it relatively simple.

Extending the Simple Example - Recurrent Events

Suppose that the event of interest wasn’t death, but a cardiovascular event (cve). For the case of simplicity we will assume that the same causal structure and causal coefficients from above still apply, but that the event is now no longer terminal and may re-occur an arbitrary number of times. First, let’s redefine the nodes to get the new name right:

dag <- empty_dag() +
  node("age", type="rnorm", mean=30, sd=5) +
  node("sex", type="rbernoulli", p=0.5)

We also redefine the function that generates the required event probabilities:

prob_cve <- function(data) {
  score <- -15 + 0.15 * data$age + 0.25 * data$sex
  prob <- 1/(1 + exp(-score))

Now, all we have to do in this case is change some arguments of the node_time_to_event() function:

dag <- dag +
  node_td("age", type="advance_age", parents=c("age")) +
  node_td("cve", type="time_to_event", parents=c("age", "sex"),
          prob_fun=prob_cve, event_duration=1, save_past_events=TRUE)

Apart from changing the node name, we also changed the event_duration parameter to 1, meaning that a cardiovascular event only lasts 1 year. We also set save_past_events to TRUE in order to store the possible recurrent events. Now we call the sim_discrete_time() function as before:

sim_dat <- sim_discrete_time(n_sim=10, dag=dag, max_t=50)
#>         age    sex cve_event cve_time   .id
#>       <num> <lgcl>    <lgcl>    <int> <int>
#> 1: 82.67833   TRUE     FALSE       NA     1
#> 2: 90.30020  FALSE      TRUE       50     2
#> 3: 88.25512   TRUE     FALSE       NA     3
#> 4: 90.28344  FALSE     FALSE       NA     4
#> 5: 79.90450   TRUE     FALSE       NA     5
#> 6: 81.70720   TRUE     FALSE       NA     6

In this case, the data is a little more complex. At time \(t = 50\), only one person is currently experiencing a cardiovascular event, which is why the cve_event column is FALSE in almost all rows and the cve_time column is NA in almost all rows. We need to transform this output data into different formats using the sim2data() function to gain more information.

For example, we can transform it into the start-stop format:

d_start_stop <- sim2data(sim_dat, to="start_stop")
#>      .id start  stop    cve      age    sex
#>    <int> <int> <num> <lgcl>    <num> <lgcl>
#> 1:     1     1    50  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 2:     2     1    43  FALSE 90.30020  FALSE
#> 3:     2    44    44   TRUE 90.30020  FALSE
#> 4:     2    45    49  FALSE 90.30020  FALSE
#> 5:     2    50    50   TRUE 90.30020  FALSE
#> 6:     3     1    50  FALSE 88.25512   TRUE

In this format, we can clearly see when the events occurred. This type of format is usually used to fit statistical models for time-to-event data (although before fitting those, you might want to take a look at the target_event, overlap and keep_only_first arguments of sim2data()). Another possibility is to transform it into the long-format:

d_long <- sim2data(sim_dat, to="long")
#> Key: <.id, .time>
#>      .id .time    cve      age    sex
#>    <int> <int> <lgcl>    <num> <lgcl>
#> 1:     1     1  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 2:     1     2  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 3:     1     3  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 4:     1     4  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 5:     1     5  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE
#> 6:     1     6  FALSE 82.67833   TRUE

This may also be useful to fit discrete-time survival models.

The simulation done here assumes that the time and number of previous events has no effect on any further events of the patient. This assumption may be relaxed by explicitly formulating the prob_cve function in a way that it uses the cve_time column to change the probability of further events. A more in-depth example that includes considerations like these can be found in the third vignette of this package.


Banks, Jerry, John S. Carson II, Barry L. Nelson, and David M. Nicol (2014). Discrete-Event System Simulation. Vol. 5. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited.

Bilge, Ugur and Osman Saka (2006). “Agent Based Simulations in Healthcare”. In: Ubiquity: Technologies for Better Health in Aging Societies - Proceedings of MIE2006. Ed. by Arie Hassman, Reinhold Haux, Johan van der Lei, Etienne De Clercq, and Francis H. Roger France. IOS Press.

Spooner, Fiona, Jesse F. Abrams, Karyn Morrissey, Gavin Shaddick, Michael Batty, Richard Milton, Adam Dennett, Nik Lomax, Nick Malleson, Natalie Nelissen, Alex Coleman, Jamil Nur, Ying Jin, Rory Greig, Charlie Shenton, and Mark Birkin (2021). “A Dynamic Microsimulation Model for Epidemics”. In: Social Science & Medicine 291.114461.

Tang, Jiangjun, George Leu, und Hussein A. Abbass. 2020. Simulation and Computational Red Teaming for Problem Solving. Hoboken: IEEE Press.