Alistair Willis

Senior lecturer in Computing at the Open University.


Alistair Willis,
Department of Computing,
The Open University,
Walton Hall,
Milton Keynes,
MK7 6AA,

Tel: +44 (0) 1908 652890
Fax: +44 (0) 1908 652140
Mail: A.G.Willis @


Research Interests

I am interested in Natural Language Processing, and in particular how we can represent and reason about the meaning of ambiguous sentences. This has led to our work on nocuous ambiguity, which arises when different groups of readers interpret the same piece of text in different ways. I am also interested in how to automatically identify when stylistically different passages of text have the same meaning.

Recently, I have been investigating how to apply this research to applications in software engineering, biological terminology recognition and automatic marking of student responses in free text.

Current Projects

Comtax (2011-2013): A Community-driven Curation Process for Taxonomic Databases.

This JISC funded project in which we are looking at how to bring the curation processes for managing collections of scanned literature into the working patterns of practising taxonomists.uild a highly scalable system to provide prospective Complex Systems PhD students with suitable introductory training in a range of disciplines, with minimal input from academic staff. The system requires a combination of learning networks and automatic assessment.

ViBRANT (2010-2013): Supporting biodiversity research communities.

The Vibrant project is an FP7 infrastructure grant, led by the Natural History Museum, for the purpose of supporting biological taxonomists across Europe. The OU is leading a work package to investigate the use of automatic markup in scanned biological documents to assist document search and concept discovery. This work feeds into taxonomic scratchpads, a social network used to support taxonomists.

étoile (2011-2013): Enhanced Technology for Open Intelligent Learning Environments.

Étoile project is a European Coordination Action grant led by the Open University. The project aims to build a highly scalable system to provide prospective Complex Systems PhD students with suitable introductory training in a range of disciplines, with minimal input from academic staff. The system requires a combination of learning networks and automatic assessment.

Previous Projects

MaTREx (2008-2011): Making Tacit Knowledge in Requirements Explicit.

Investigating Natural Language Processing techniques to identify where tacit knowledge and ambiguity in requirements documents might lead to incorrect implementations in later stages of the software development lifecycle (funded by EPSRC).

Able (2008-2011): Automated Biodiversity Literature Enhancement

Biological knowledge, especially taxonomic knowledge, is often presented in a stylised form, often using typography to indicate its meaning. This project used typographical information and other contextual clues to identify and tag document content (funded by JISC).

PhD Students

I am currently co-supervising Anthony Prechtl on using music to support narratives in computer games.


I have previously supervised Tom Collins on "Stochastic Modeling for Computer Music Generation" (completed in 2011), and Francis Chantree on "Nocuous ambiguity in requirements documents" (completed in 2006).



I jointly chair of T802, the MSc Research Project and Dissertation module. This module is taken as the main postgraduate project module for all students taking Computing or Technology MScs.


I am an author on the production team for the forthcoming level 2 module M269: Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.

Previously, I was on the production course team for M359, the level 3 module on relational databases, and the presentation teams for M359 and M450, the Undergraduate Computing Project.

Past Research Interests

From my time at Philips Research, I am interested in how we can automate the process of testing software. Software testing is a very interesting area of software engineering that I think deserves a higher status. I am interested in how we address the questions:

1.    How do we measure how good a set of test cases is? Finding bugs in well written software is harder than finding bugs in buggy software.

2.    Given a suitable description of a piece of software, and a requirement of a certain level of testing, can we automatically generate a optimal test set to achieve that level of testing (that is, the smallest set of test cases that will achieve the required level of coverage)?

Quick Biog

I graduated in physics and philosophy from Cambridge, then took an MSc in Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh, and a DPhil in Computational Linguistics at York.

After leaving York, I worked for Philips Research Laboratories for about three years on automated software testing before returning to academia and natural language processing with the Open University.

While working at the Open University, I have studied for a degree in Law, which I completed in 2009.


Some representative publications are:

·       Hui Yang, Anne De Roeck, Vincenzo Gervasi, Alistair Willis and Bashar Nuseibeh. Analysing Anaphoric Ambiguity in Natural Language Requirements. Journal of Requirements Engineering. Accepted, forthcoming.

·       Collins, Tom; Laney, Robin; Willis, Alistair and Garthwaite, Paul (2011). Modeling pattern importance in Chopin's mazurkas. Music Perception, 28(4), pp. 387–414.

·       Alistair Willis, David King, David Morse, Anton Dil, Chris Lyal and Dave Roberts. From XML to XML: The Why and How of Making the Biodiversity Literature Accessible to Researchers. In Proceedings of LREC 2010, Malta. 19-21 May, 2010.

·       Alistair Willis, Francis Chantree and Anne De Roeck. Automatic Identification of Nocuous Ambiguity. Research on Language & Computation 6(4). Springer. 2008.

·       Alistair Willis, NP Coordination in Underspecified Scope Representations. 7th International Workshop on Computational Semantics, Tilburg, the Netherlands, January 2007.

·       Chantree, Francis; Nuseibeh, Bashar; De Roeck, Anne and Willis, Alistair (2006). Identifying nocuous ambiguities in natural language requirements. In: Proceedings of 14th IEEE International Requirements Engineering conference (RE'06), 11-15 Sept 2006, Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota, USA.

A complete list of publications is available here.