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Data Engineering, Rugby Sevens and Algorithms: Mark Cottam

Who is Mark? Tell me a bit about yourself… 

I studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. I went straight from my degree into a graduate scheme with a large aerospace and defence company. I found studying Chemical Engineering vastly different from working in industry, the latter was dominated by safety controls, which meant there wasn’t a huge amount of innovation and dynamism. It was a rotating scheme, and I really found my feet in the company’s data unit – where I was able to problem-solve and actually spend time engineering solutions to technical problems, rather than managing documentation and processes. This was what first sparked my interest in software and data. 

You’ve represented Wales in track (running) events. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I was born in Wales to a mother of Jamaican descent and an English father. That meant that growing up, I had the potential to represent three nations in sport (!) I’ve always done athletics. My grandfather used to run for Jamaica so it (quite literally) runs in the family. This culminated in representing Wales twice at DNA in Glasgow and the Loughborough International in 2022. I now represent Jamaica in Rugby Sevens.

How do you fit your sporting commitments around Climate Policy Radar?

I’m in the office twice a week, and work from home twice a week. I’m really grateful for our four day work week – having Fridays off makes training and travelling for tournaments and races much easier.

Can you tell me a bit about what led you to Climate Policy Radar?

I knew I wanted to work in a dynamic and fast-paced environment, working for an organisation solving a large-scale societal problem that would attract other passionate people. I quite literally searched for ‘climate tech startups’ on Google and came across Climate Policy Radar. They stood out because policy is really the ‘macro lever’ for climate action. If you get policy and regulation right, industry will follow suit. 

What excites you about Climate Policy Radar?

Coming in at the stage that I did (nearly two years ago) and being a part of building out the data infrastructure, was a very exciting opportunity. We’re doing pretty cutting edge stuff, like RAG (retrieval augmented generation) for in-document search – effectively allowing users to ask complex questions of our dataset. I think we’re well-positioned to make the most of emerging technologies like generative AI. The way I see it, tech allows us to even the playing field – less people will be able to do more. Take litigation: you won’t need to be a huge company with 100 lawyers to hold others to account, a small group of climate lawyers would be able to use a tool like ours, and other AI tools, to put up a good fight. 

What does a day in the life of a data engineer look like?

I was the first data engineering hire at Climate Policy Radar. We’re a lean team, so you have to be able to work across a range of technologies. We take raw document data – PDFs and HTML documents – and extract useful information (like targets) from text, as well as managing metadata and document hierarchy. The data engineers use cloud services to process documents at scale, manage machine learning models and all the tasks associated with that. The analogy I always use for data engineering is to compare it to brewing. In both examples, what you’re doing is taking a raw material, and producing a finished product at scale, in a safe, observable, efficient and cost-effective way. That’s also what we do in data engineering, but instead of fluid flow and chemical reactions, we handle data flows and algorithms.

Where can you be found on a Friday?

I’ll often be at tournaments or running, spending time visiting friends and family, or (on a more boring note) doing life admin, laundry and so on. I’m also developing a side-project at the moment: a mobile app for track and field athletes.

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