Working collaboratively, not sequentially

Fibre optics
May 12, 2022
Peter Wells
Nick Whittaker

Nick shares problems faced by his distributed GIS team and how Mergin Maps solved them.

Nick was searching for a way for his remote team to safely edit the GIS layers of their fibre network designs at the same time. Solutions he’d tried were either unsafe for concurrent editing, not feature-rich enough or had prohibitive licence costs. Nick now usesto collaborate with his colleagues around the world in near real time.

Nick Whittaker is Director of Highbeech Consultancy, a company providing specialised fibre optic network design services. Highbeach is based in England and operates in markets around the world.

Around 9 years ago, Highbeech started helping their clients develop city-wide fibre-to-the-home network design strategies. Nick’s team developed network simulation models which they used to understand the performance and likely construction costs of different designs fed by both public and municipality GIS data. The models proved a success as several clients commissioned construction of the resulting designs.

Nick’s team were now tasked with acting as technical liaison to the engineering companies carrying out the build in the US.

Nick Whittaker

The Challenge

Nick now needed a way for the different project partners to safely view and edit the design at the same time: “This was working sequentially, not collaboratively - we needed to be able to work in parallel!”

“One of the engineering companies we were advising had requirements to have staff in different parts of the US and at present, everything we were doing with the designs ran on-premises. People could use VPNs but working on designs was a nightmare” Nick explained.

Nick found working on designs via VPN was too slow to be workable and instead looked for a solution which would bring designs closer to the staff needing to work on them.

Cloud storage solutions such as OneDrive, Google Drive or Dropbox are unsuitable for collaboration on GIS data as they allow files that would normally be locked and accessed one at a time to be modified simultaneously by multiple users. This situation commonly results in data loss.

“We were having to limit ourselves to one person working on the design at a time and having to notify each other when it was safe for the next person to take over - file locking by email. This was working sequentially, not collaboratively - we needed to be able to work in parallel!” he added.

Nick searched for better solutions for allowing the various teams to work together quickly and safely at the same time.

“In the past we’d used ArcGIS Server which worked well as a collaboration platform when everyone was in the same office but wouldn’t be suitable in this case. We’d also tried ArcGIS Online but found it frustrating as it was too cut-down compared with ArcGIS Server.” Nick said.

Licencing was also an important factor for Nick: “Some solutions we looked at were plugins to other suites, for example, AutoCAD. If I tell my client that we’ll do a project in AutoCAD, they may tell me they can’t afford an AutoCAD licence.”

“While searching for collaborative GIS platforms I came across the Mergin Maps plugin for QGIS.”

QGIS is open source GIS software with a large number of extensions called plugins.

"GIS is widely used in fibre network design and I used ArcGIS primarily. I first heard about QGIS when using FiberPlanIT as it’s implemented as a QGIS plugin. Within about 12 months I was doing the majority of my GIS tasks in QGIS and now consider myself a QGIS convert, purely because I see the power, potential and capability of its community."

A fibre network design shown in QGIS

Implementation and Outcomes

After taking time to evaluate  within Highbeech, Nick proposed it as a collaboration platform to the US-based engineering company.

“Initially they were unsure how to set it up so I offered to do that and to administer it for them. Within 2-3 weeks they had 20 guys using it and within 3 months I’d migrated control of it over to them.” Nick said.

“The value is all about collaborating in near real time rather than the days it used to take to do things”

Nick’s team can now see the changes their US-based client makes to the design as they make them and jump in/out as required to perform validations and make corrections and changes as required.

“The time zone difference with the US now works to our advantage - we even tell our clients we can turn their 8 hour working day into a 16 hour working day.”

“Once our client’s fielding team has finished for the day, we work through their data, performing checks and validations and everything’s done by the time they’re back in the office the next day. This forms much of what Highbeech does on the project nowadays and this wouldn’t be possible without Mergin Maps.”

When asked what worked particularly well about Mergin Maps, Nick said: “the seamless way you can be working with someone on a call, make a change to a design and have it appear in front of them within seconds. This is incredible and something that happens on a regular basis.”

“The value is all about collaborating in near real time rather than the days it used to take to do things. That’s the greatest strength of Mergin Maps.”

Mergin Maps app is a mobile app that allows GIS projects to be viewed and edited in the field.

When asked about how collaborative working might change in the future, Nick said: “We live in a world where an ever increasing number of people choose to work from home. For those working in fibre network design, that’s only possible with collaborative platforms such as Mergin Maps.”

Nick has since introduced other clients in the US and UK to Mergin Maps which supports their collaborative GIS efforts together.

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