The WOW project created a crowd sourcing application allowing the general public to submit weather data to the Met Office. This application was the first IT project carried out for the Met Office to use the Scrum agile development approach and also to place its software and data on a cloud platform. To carry out its mission, the Met Office uses IBM supercomputers at its HQ in Exeter to process data collected from a large number of weather stations. These can vary in size and sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly the observers who supply the weather data are not employed by the Met Office. Some are the staff of organisations with a particular interest in weather conditions such as the armed forces, air traffic control, coast guards and researchers in universities, as well as trusted individual enthusiasts. Many other weather enthusiasts - including schools - collect weather data. The Met Office had no way of utilising this data. But since July 2011 there has been the Met Office WOW (Weather Observation Website) which can be found at http://wow.metoffice.gov.uk. It now has over 3,000 contributors and deals with a million new data points a week. This is crowd sourcing with a vengeance.
The Met Office commissioned PA Consulting to implement WOW. It was agreed that for first time an agile Scrum approach would be used to develop a Met Office application. Scrum is an agile method originally developed for product development projects, but has become increasingly used in the development of software, which, after all, can be seen as just another type of product. In Scrum, the development team is expected to be largely self-organising, under the guidance of a ‘Scrum Master’ who acts as a moderator. PA Consulting’s Paul Craig - who gave the presentation on WOW PROMS-G - took on this role. The Scrum approach tackles the usually time-consuming task of gathering and prioritising user needs by identifying a ‘product owner’ with authority over the features of the system to be built. With WOW, an experienced Met Office project manager took this role. Paul Craig stressed the crucial role of the product owner, particularly where the client organisation uses formalised, bureaucratic procedures to control projects, such as those enshrined in PRINCE2.
Scrum encourages a ‘get stuck in approach’ which is anathema to conventional project management which focuses on careful planning up-front. The functionality is developed in a series of sprints of about two to four weeks each. At the start of a sprint, the product owner and the development team together examine an initial product backlog recording all the required features of the product. The tasks needed to implement these features for the next sprint are recorded in a sprint backlog. A circumstance that helped the WOW project was that it was, initially at least, a standalone system. A problem if you are asking volunteers to supply information and you do not want to turn people away, is that you cannot accurately forecast the demand that might be put on your server infrastructure. The answer was cloud computing - which seems very appropriate seems appropriate for the Met Office. No dedicated hardware/software platform was set up for the application. Java applets were developed and uploaded to the platform supplied by Google Application Engine. This was very cost effective as you only paid for what you used. Some knowledgeable participants at the presentation commented that a cheap service often means scanty support. This poor support for commoditised services offered cheaply because of the large economies of scale and a focus on essential requirements rather than ‘frills’ has led to the growth of mutual help groups such as those who inhabit www.stackoverflow.com, an information exchange forum collaboratively built and maintained by software developers.
An agile approach to software development projects is not always the best one. It seems to work best in green field undertakings where everything is being built from scratch and developers do not need to worry that changes to critical systems already in use may have unexpected and undesirable outcomes. However the Met Office WOW project shows that in the right circumstances it can successfully meet objectives.