Meet the Simulation Team – Ian MacKinnon

Ian MacKinnon, Technical Director, was part of the founding team of AiQ Consulting, using his unique skills of project management, computer aided design and data analysis, as well as his game design background, to create TransvisionAiR™ our bespoke modeling tool. In this Meet the Team blog we find out more about what projects he’s found challenging, his background and what the future holds for the company.

What was your background before joining AiQ?

I’m a graduate of engineering science and I studied at Oxford University. Before AiQ I had a whole bunch of jobs, starting with the oil business, with John Brown Engineering, and then I moved into CAD/CAM. I started to pick up computer skills back in the 1980s and then started picking up database and analysis skills in the 1990s. In the 2000s I was carrying on improving those skills, as well as picking up project management and business skills as I ran a BT Local business. Then from 2010 onwards I was working with AiQ.

You have worked with AiQ from the beginning – What was it that attracted to the company?

One of my other hats is that I design and build concept games, including gambling games and social media games. When I finished working with BT Adrian recruited me because he had a small airport project and he wanted someone with a gaming background to have a look at it. We decided to actually model the airport as a multi player game; so all the stakeholders are essentially players. Our first project was to produce information, rather than having a stack of printouts, so we were trying to present the information that people needed in a much more visual way. People relate much better to charts and images than to numbers. This is what essentially attracted me to AiQ; that our ambition was to do it better and to do it more graphically. This hadn’t been done before, at least not very well, so it was a chance to programme something from scratch and keep developing that programme. I was originally going to work on the project for six weeks, and that was eight and half years ago.

What software do you use?

The software we use is a customised bespoke model that was designed to run London Heathrow, and it’s steadily been expanded with more functionality ever since. It’s our flagship product, TranvisionAiR™.

We can now produce 2½D animations, and we can use our database to generate more visual stuff. We took a conscious decision not to go full 3D. Full 3d is very expensive to produce and doesn’t tell you any more information than 2D in terms of where the queues are, which is what our clients are interested in. We produce stuff for clients to help the decision making process. Clients have now moved on, so we now externally produce 3D and virtual reality. This doesn’t help the clients make decisions but they can visualize better what we are telling them. We’re moving towards a modeling process that we control completely to actually produce more high quality graphics for the wow factor.

The important thing for us is keeping control of our software environment because that’s what makes the whole thing work. If we were to use commercial software we’d lose the ability to customise what we want when we want it so it’s important for us to be able to adapt our output for each client.

What’s been the most challenging project so far?

It’s very hard to pick one out, but I think in terms of the most complicated was the analysis of Heathrow’s Inter Terminal Passenger coaching analysis. The issues are the vagueness of the data, moving bags and passengers around the airport, transfers, etc., because what happens today doesn’t always happen tomorrow. You’re trying to extract from the mass of historical data what is likely to happen. It’s very hard to actually nail this particular jelly to a wall. The past is a reasonable indication of the future, so we started from first principles – how would we organize this, how would it work?

The most challenging element is explaining to the client that what they were looking at was not a forecast, it was a risk analysis – there is no perfect solution, you could put on a thousand buses, or very few, or something in the middle and you have to pick. We had to explain to the client that we can’t give you an answer but what we can do is give you a risk analysis. We had two issues – how do we process this amount of information into something digestible and how do we show the client what we mean? We did help the clients make a better decision and we saved them £4 or £5 million on the contract. The client was extremely happy.

What AiQ projects are you most proud of?

As well as the Internal Terminal Coaching analysis, we were pleased with the London Heathrow 2012 Pop Up. What we tell clients is ‘do you remember the chaos at the London 2012?’ and they say ‘what chaos?’. Our work went under the radar and no one knew we did it. It’s like building the foundations for a house, no one sees it.

How varied is your job and the projects you work on?

I’ve got several jobs. The first job is to build the technology we rely on, the second job is to maintain that technology, and the third job is to use that technology on projects. I need to balance all these things. The fourth job is to teach the next generation how we do this. My new job effectively is see how can keep this technology running and teach others how to take over. I’ve worked on all the projects we’ve done at some level or another, so it is very varied.

What’s your next project for AiQ?

The next big project will be the building and delivery of our new TransvisionAiR™ software. We’ve got 40% of it written but it’s on hold because of our company’s expansion, so I’m dying to see the new version up and running. There’s more to do but that’s my next big project. Once that’s done we’ll be able to look at more complicated models easily and make a more generic product to expand our business areas.

Externally there’s a collaboration with NATS which has just started in which I will be providing technical assistance, as well as some projects in India.

What does the future hold for AiQ?

The future is looking bright. We are employing more fresh people than we’ve had in the past, and we need to keep the projects flowing and expand the profile of the company. We’re looking at Schiphol in Amsterdam, an analysis for their declaration of capacity to their national government. There’s a big business need around the world for this sort of service so we may be able to meet that demand which is interesting. AiQ seems like a solid place to be, a solid collection of work. Clients trust us, we are accessible, so if we can hold on to our culture the future seems pretty good to me. We are in the decision support business and we are honest brokers of information.

Thanks to all our simulation team for giving up their valuable time to tell us more about their roles. If you’re interested in our expertise and bespoke software, or any of the projects mentioned in this blog, contact us today to find out more.