Sidewalk Labs: Civic Modeling

Who am I?

I’m Brett Naul. I work at Sidewalk Labs.

What problem am I trying to solve?

My team @ Sidewalk (“Model Lab”) uses machine learning models to study human travel behavior in cities and produce high-fidelity simulations of the travel patterns/volumes in a metro area. Our process has three main steps:

  • Construct a “synthetic population” from census data and other sources of demographic information; this population is statistically representative of the true population but contains no actual identifiable individuals.
  • Train machine learning models on anonymous mobile location data to understand behavioral patterns in the region (what times do people go to lunch, what factors affect an individual’s likelihood to use public transit, etc.).
  • For each person in the synthetic population, generate predictions from these models and combine the resulting into activities into a single model of all the activity in a region.

For more information see our blogpost Introducing Replica: A Next-Generation Urban Planning Tool.

How Dask Helps

Generating activities for millions of synthetic individuals is extremely computationally intensive; even with for example, a 96 core instance, simulating a single day in a large region initially took days. It was important to us to be able to run a new simulation from scratch overnight, and scaling to hundreds/thousands of cores across many workers with Dask let us accomplish our goal.

Why we chose Dask originally, and how these reasons have changed over time

Our code consists of a mixture of legacy research-quality code and newer production-quality code (mostly Python). Before I started we were using Google Cloud Dataflow (Python 2 only, massively scalable but generally an astronomical pain to work with / debug) and multiprocessing (something like ~96 cores max).

Dask let us scale beyond a single machine with only minimal changes to our data pipeline. If we had been starting from scratch I think it’s likely we would have gone in a different direction (something like C++ or Go microservices, especially since we have strong Google ties), but from my perspective as a hybrid infrastructure engineer/data scientist, having all of our models in Python makes it easy to experiment and debug statistical issues.

Some of the pain points of using Dask for our problem

There is lots of special dask knowledge that only I possess, for example:

  • In which formats we can serialize data that will allow for it to be reloaded efficiently? Sometimes we can use parquet, other times it should be CSVs so we can easily chunk them dynamically at runtime

  • Sometimes we load data on the client and scatter to the workers, and other times we load chunks directly on the workers

  • The debugging process is sufficiently more complicated compared to local code that it’s harder for other people to help resolve issues that occur on workers

  • The scheduler has been the source of most of our scaling issues: when the number of tasks/chunks of data gets too large, the scheduler tends to fall over silently in some way.

    Some of these failures might be to Kubernetes (if we run out of RAM, we don’t see an OOM error; the pod just disappears and the job will restart). We had to do some hand-tuning of things like timeouts to make things more stable, and there was quite a bit of trial and error to get to a relatively reliable state

  • This has more to do with our deploy process but we would sometimes end up in situations where the scheduler and worker were running different dask/distributed versions and things will crash when tasks are submitted but not when the connection is made, which makes it take a while to diagnose (plus the error tends to be something inscrutable like KeyError: ... that others besides me would have no idea how to interpret)

Some of the technology that we use around Dask

  • Google Kubernetes Engine: lots of worker instances (usually 16 cores each), 1 scheduler, 1 job runner client (plus some other microservices)
  • Make + Helm
  • For debugging/monitoring I usually kubectl port-forward to 8786 and 8787 and watch the dashboard/submit tasks manually. The dashboard is not very reliable over port-forward when there are lots of workers (for some reason the websocket connection dies repeatedly) but just reconnecting to the pod and refreshing always does the trick