Witan – the flexible city modelling platform

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.08.56

As Fran mentioned in her previous blog post, Mastodon C is working together with the Greater London Authority to develop a flexible approach to city modelling. The aim is to take forecasting beyond the limitations of Excel, while providing modellers with the benefits of sophisticated data management tools, such as version control, security levels and scaling to very big or complex datasets.

We are now working on the first features of this platform together with the GLA demography team. Population projections are vital to London planning and provides a base for the London Plan, the Mayor’s strategic plan for London up until 2036. London population projections are also used by multiple departments within the GLA and underlie many other models, and including these models early on means that the Witan platform can be beneficial throughout the organisation.

Another feature we are implementing is an interface for London boroughs to input data and run population projection scenarios themselves, without having to rely on GLA modelling resources. The platform thus provides boroughs with a powerful tool to take charge of their own, local, modelling requirements.

Going forward, this interface can be used for other city modelling purposes and be expanded to other stakeholders beyond the London boroughs, providing the ability to run different models and access a host of datasets, both open and private, to play out city modelling scenarios.      

We will be implementing these first features of Witan in the autumn and hope to provide updates on the platform build as we progress. The platform will be built using open source and interested parties will be able to access the platform code through our Github account.

By the end of the year, the demographic forecasting modules of the platform will be in public beta, and we’d love to start working with more interested users – please do get in touch at theteam@mastodonc.com if this sounds like it would be useful for you!

A Next-generation City Modelling Platform is born… (well, conceived… blog post #1 in a series)

[cross posted from the London DataStore blog]

There’s been a lot of discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, of what to actually do with city data once it’s out in the world. We think that, given the capital’s booming population and the consequent policy focus on addressing a wide range of infrastructure needs, one of the most important applications is using data (both open data, and the more private stuff) to gain insight into how the city is functioning right now, how this could potentially change based on a range of inputs, and to ultimately set out different scenarios for its future.

I’m very pleased to say that our company, Mastodon C, is going to be working with the GLA in 2015 and 2016 to try and do just this: to prototype a city data platform which will help the GLA’s modelling experts, data analysts, policy makers, and the public to integrate and make sense of different types of model and forecast, in order to explore scenarios for the future of London.

We plan to make use of the best of modern “big data” and web-based technologies, to make it easier for:

  • experts to ‘look into’ and adjust the equations, assumptions and connections of their models (without the need for programming skills), and take advantage of functions they don’t have at the moment, like version control and the capacity to scale to very big or complex datasets and simulations
  • policy makers to explore scenarios much more widely without the need to engage directly with the equations.
  • all of us to be able to see what’s being planned and what the thought process behind that is, through a graphical interface.

The platform will build on open source technology, will be open source itself, and will provide an open API interface to read data from and publish data to other systems.

This is all made possible by Innovate UK’s SBRI programme, which is funding the prototype development – which gives us a really unusual and exciting opportunity to tackle some really important problems using the latest technology.

We are, of course, very excited about this whole thing, and will be blogging regularly as things unfold – our first job being to spend some quality time with the GLA’s experts to understand what they really need from such a platform. Watch this space for more news!

City Modeller/Data Scientist Job

We’re looking for an experienced City Modeller and Data Scientist to help us work on an upcoming project. More details are below.

Who we are

Mastodon C are agile big data specialists. We offer the open source technology platform and the skills to help our clients realise the potential of their data. We work in particular in applying data to areas where we think we can have a positive impact on the world, like sustainability, health, and built environment.

Responsibilities
You will act as our inhouse city modelling expert for a major new product, applying big data, open data, and analytics technologies to improve city planning. We’ll be working with one major city as a test client, and hope to be bringing the product to a wider market in 2016.

You will in particular be responsible for:

  • Interacting with users and clients to understand their challenges and goals
  • Adjusting generic models for city scale purposes
  • Advice on alternative models to use for various city challenges
  • Disseminate knowledge around urban planning and city modelling throughout the team
  • Thinking through data workflows that will be intuitive for both technical and non-technical users
  • Querying data sources and coming up with recommendations for data usage and data related challenges
  • Working closely with the development team to create integrated city model structures – you will be specialising in the mathematics of the various city models, but you will also get involved with developing features end-to-end
  • Thinking through data workflows that will be intuitive for both technical and non-technical users
  • Working with our team to create meaningful, interactive visualisations of modelling results and forecasts

You will work day-to-day with the software development team and UX and UI focused staff, who you will collaborate with to design and implement the product.

Who you are

Our ideal person for this role would:

Must Have:

  • Have a Masters or PhD in urban planning, ecological modeling or similar.
  • Have had exposure to a wide range of city related models, such as population, pollution, transport and housing, and knowing the pros and cons of various model approaches
  • Be keen to learn about new areas of city modelling
  • Be excited to share their knowledge with the team
  • Have good communication skills – able to listen to users and clients and understand their challenges and goals and being able to communicate complex structures and models to non-technical users
  • Be interested in and excited about applying data and analytics to important issues in the world

Nice to Have:

  • Have experience with Javascript, HTML, and CSS, and be comfortable learning other new languages
  • Have experience with web-based data visualisation
  • Have experience with ETL or big data technologies (spark, hadoop, other)
  • Experience in or interest in clojure

Salary and work environment

We are based in Fitzroy Street, near Euston, London. We’re also happy to discuss part-remote or part-time arrangements if those are important for you.

We’re a small and very consultative team, which means that every member has a big influence on how things run and has a lot of control over the way they work.

The salary for this role is up to £40,000 per year. Our preferred start date is 1st June.

If this looks like your kind of a job, please contact us at team@mastodonc.com with a CV (and, if possible, recent code or project examples) and we’ll talk.

Please note that you need to be eligible to work in the UK to apply for this position.

No agents please.

Want to build UI in clojurescript?

We’re looking for a User Interface designer and developer to help us work on an upcoming project. More details are below.

Who we are

Mastodon C are agile big data specialists. We offer the open source technology platform and the skills to help our clients realise the potential of their data. We work in particular in applying data to areas where we think we can have a positive impact on the world, like sustainability, health, and built environment.

Responsibilities

You will be the lead User Interface designer and developer for a major new product, applying big data, open data, and analytics technologies to improve city planning. We’ll be working with one major city as a test client, and hope to be bringing the product to a wider market from late 2016.

You will in particular be responsible for:

  • Interacting with users and clients to understand their challenges and goals
  • Making and keeping the interface beautiful and usable
  • Thinking through, designing, and implementing data workflows that will be intuitive for non-technical and less-technical users
  • Working within the development team to develop features end-to-end – you will be specialising in front end and UI technologies, but you will also get involved with building the rest of the technology in the product

You will work day-to-day with our UX consultant, who will be gathering and shaping user needs and overall design, and with the rest of the software development team, who you will collaborate with to design and implement the product.

Who you are

Our ideal person for this role would:

  • Have already held a professional designer or software developer role
  • Know or be interested in learning ClojureScript – for example, we hope you would find this article interesting
  • Have experience with Javascript, HTML, and CSS, and be comfortable learning other new languages
  • Be excited about enhancing your UI and UX skills
  • Be interested in and excited about applying data and analytics to important issues in the world
  • Be able to demonstrate experience in turning complex needs into simple and elegant interfaces

Salary and work environment

We are based in Fitzroy Street, near Euston, London. We’re also happy to discuss part-remote or part-time arrangements if those are important for you.

We’re a small and very consultative team, which means that every member has a big influence on how things run and has a lot of control over the way they work.

The salary for this role is up to £40,000 per year. Our preferred start date is 1st June.

If this looks like your kind of a job, please contact us at theteam@mastodonc.com with a CV (and, if possible, recent code or project examples) and we’ll talk.

Please note that you need to be eligible to work in the UK to apply for this position.
No agents please.

Handoffs considered expensive

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a team of coders in possession of dependencies must be in trouble. Much of agile at scale is about reducing or eliminating the dependencies between teams, usually by making multiskilled teams (see devops et al). Since working at Mastodon C though I’ve noticed that I’ve not suffered this as much as I used to. I figured it might have just been to do with being in a startup and having escaped the madness of enterprise software and bureaucratic large companies and massive teams.

However, I’ve noticed this pain again in some of the projects we’ve done, where we have dependencies on other teams to deliver either front end or back end things for us. I know the people well on the other teams and I know that they are *very* skilled, so their ability to execute isn’t the problem. They do everything right. The communication levels are high and they build things that we couldn’t do ourselves.

People usually say that choice of language doesn’t really affect what you are doing that much, but I feel it is making a big difference for us. From deployments, to database access, to services, to the front end we are using clojure and clojurescript. Most of our features go from the database to the front end and are delivered by one developer or a pair of developers. This is an amazing freedom.

All of our team members can do the basics, with only a few times when we need expert help on deploying, design or data science. This gives them a chance to improve on weak spots in addition to gaining more expertise. Using effectively the same language at all layers gives us this strength. I can look at code in the front end and look at code running in spark and know that there will be map/reduce/keep working on data structures where I’m going to assoc and dissoc things on a hashmap and then working on the values held there.

This means that any developer can implement a whole idea. They may need help, but they can do the vertical slice themselves and this also helps them think about the user needs as they are taking the feature all the way to the end rather than just implementing something in the backend. It also helps them think about performance and monitoring as they aren’t just implementing a bit of UI.

I like working with experts. It helps us to do things better than we could have done on our own, but there is a cost to this. The cost is in waiting and communication with the expert and being blocked if they aren’t available. Sometimes this cost is worth it, but I’m glad that most of the time we don’t have to take on that cost and that we can usually choose when we want to.