Framing the Problem

Our business executives needed some in depth analysis on payment performance in the form of something called a vintage curve. For those that are entrenched in the analysis world, this looks pretty familiar, right? It looks eerily similar to cohort analysis. It probably looks that way because it is a form of cohort analysis. What the execs wanted to measure is payment performance of their portfolio for each “vintage” (i.e. a month that we funded a small business) and seeing how that group performs in comparison to other groups.

Formulating a Solution

Our solution, which will be detailed in another blog post, had to involve a handful of technologies. We need to host this software on a server (Heroku). We needed SQL, as all of our data resides in a RDBMS. It has to involve a highly computational language, we chose R, to handle summarization and data reshaping. Lastly, we needed a layer to handle API requests to get the data out of the system, of which we chose Elixir.

Implementing the Solution

Assumption: You have a heroku account and Heroku Toolbelt installed on your system as I go through a variety of commands and concepts. For our purposes, our heroku app will be called tool-analysis-example.

Getting R on Heroku

The first thing we need to do here is get a R buildpack on associated to our heroku app. This one looks pretty good. To add it, we run the following command: heroku buildpacks:add --index 1

From reading the README, we need to add an init.R file to the main directory of our repo. This init.R is used during deployment to install necessary dependencies. Here are the dependencies we used:

install.packages('devtools', repos='')
install.packages('jsonlite', repos='')
install.packages('httr', repos='')
install.packages('reshape2', repos='')

While installing R for the first time, all of these dependencies installed correctly with the exception of RPostgres. The error that was raised was due to not having libpq-dev on the instance. Bummer! Time to fix that now! We now need to install libpg-dev on our instance using Apt. To do this, we add another buildpack at the beginning of our pipeline:

heroku buildpacks:add --index 1

This takes an Aptfile in the root directory which will contain a single line of libpq-dev.

Our next deploy will NOW be successful and R will be able to communicate with our RDMBS.

Getting Elixir on Heroku

This is pretty straightforward and just takes a buildpack. heroku buildpacks:add --index 3 Per the readme, this one needs a elixir_buildpack.config file in the root directory of your application’s repository. Your next deploy will now install erlang and elixir without issue.

Getting Elixir to Communicate with R

Lastly, we need to get Elixir to invoke an R script we created. For this example, our R script is located at ./r_scripts/vintage.R in our repository.

Using Elixir’s System module, we can invoke commands on the system.

System.cmd("Rscript", ["./app/r_scripts/vintage.R"])

The output of this command will be a tuple where the first element is a string of the output from your R script.

Our API endpoint that returns the R results from this sytem averages about 3 seconds. Not too shabby given the amount of data it is returning! We could reduce that probably by 60% by altering our JSON payload to be streamlined.


It is possible to get R and a web framework of choice on Heroku. Installing apt on Heroku was definitely not expected, but got us over the finish line.

Thanks for reading!