Two clicks for a more efficient HS2

Marrying big data with cloud computing on HS2 has enabled the client’s 30 partners to collect, access and edit vast amounts of information quickly, easily and in real time.

The benefits of working within common data environments (CDE) are well established on complex construction projects throughout the transport sector. Creating a central, trusted source of real-time information stimulates close collaboration and communication between all stakeholders, wherever in the world they may be; enables far greater levels of accuracy to support well-informed decision making; and introduces more control over multi-faceted programmes.

More on how smart technology is changing industry on the Infrastructure Intelligence/Mott MacDonald Digital Infrastructure Hub

However, scaling up the CDE concept to something as colossal as the HS2 rail project seemed completely unworkable, such was the magnitude of information that needed to be collected, curated and controlled. The solution was to devise a software platform and related tools based around the idea of ‘big data’ and the power of cloud computing, which resulted in stakeholders being able to access the latest project information from anywhere in the world with just two clicks of a computer mouse.

Land referencing on a giant scale

The 225km first phase of HS2 will link Birmingham, in the Midlands, to the country’s capital city, London, in the south. Mott MacDonald was appointed to two work packages, covering environmental and land referencing services in addition to its engineering design package. Collecting and sharing information within the project team and with all stakeholders was easier said than done, however.

“Land referencing had not been carried out in the UK on this scale for many years. It’s a process whereby the client’s team gains a full understanding of the geography, ownership rights, access and a host of other environmental factors, which are vital to progressing to the detail design stage. In this case, the scope involved 3000 land owners and more than 5000 individual land titles, covering 220sq km,” explains Louise Walker, Mott MacDonald HS2 GIS manager.

30 external sub-consultancies were involved, generating a colossal amount of data. “The teams needed to deal with geological, historical, ecological, land ownership and use, and utilities information over 14 areas of interest, represented in a range of spatial and non-spatial formats ranging from 3D and GIS models to spreadsheets, documents and images,” she explains.

The very tight work schedule reinforced the need for everyone to collaborate using the latest, most accurate data, but the 30 partners were scattered all over the UK and ranged from small businesses with limited IT facilities to large firms with extensive corporate systems.

“Data management was particularly important,” says Mott MacDonald GIS manager Andrew Sheekey – and particularly challenging.

A new option

Traditionally, there are two ways of enabling a team of this size to collaborate on such a large project:

·     Duplicate and synchronise To duplicate the data and then upload it at all offices of all partners would have meant contending with multiple corporate networks and differing software platforms, and storing data would have been very costly. “These issues, plus the prospect of 30 duplicates, made this simply unworkable,” says Sheekey. “As data was created and modified by different users, version control would have become impossible.” Software licensing would have proved expensive, too: each GIS license alone costs more than £6000.

·     Co-locate Sharing the same physical space can make for good communication but would have been a big ask. “With more than 500 team members, this was simply not practical,” Sheekey says. “Even selecting an appropriate co-location would have been tough, and the inevitable resultant daily commuting would have drastically increased the project’s carbon footprint.” Purchasing the software licenses that would have been needed to allow users to manipulate the data would also have been prohibitively expensive.

“Neither option was a realistic choice for HS2,” says Sheekey. “So we built a system that combines GIS, BIM and big data processes to host all the information necessary to support decision making, technical assessment and problem solving.”

This secure new umbrella system has yielded two applications that have been deployed with great success already on HS2: Gigi and Apollo.

GiGi: 400 users, 2.1TB of data

The GiGi environmental services application supported more than 400 users from 24 organisations working on HS2. It provided a visual display of over 1500 datasets from more than 80 suppliers covering 14 environmental topics. The 1600 layers of information loaded onto GiGi represented 2.1 terabytes of data.

“To put that into context,” says Sheekey, “it would have taken 18 days to transfer this data from London to Birmingham over our ICT network, which is among the best in the UK consulting sector and which has just undergone a £10M upgrade. Imagine how long it would take to share that data with all other partners, many of whom don’t have access to this type of communications infrastructure!”

Instead GiGi allowed this huge data resource to be accessed via a web browser, eliminating the need for expensive desktop tools to view or edit information, and enabling a much wider audience to contribute to the project. Information was collected from the field using mobile devices, and edits made to data were shared in real time, ensuring the latest version was always available.

GiGi also linked to CAD and BIM data models to keep design team information up to date. Multiple maps and images representing hundreds of gigabytes were collated in a single location.

“GiGi was fundamental to delivering on time and to high quality,” comments Mott MacDonald’s environmental impact assessment project manager, James Montgomery. “Team members are often highly mobile on projects of this nature. Yet, I was able to answer site-specific technical questions while working in South Africa by accessing GiGi – and in just two mouse clicks. The instant transmission of new information to the whole team was not feasible in any other way.”

Apollo: managing contact with 3000 stakeholders

Apollo facilitated land referencing tasks, such as establishing and recording proof of land ownership, together with facilitating land access and environmental surveys. Like GiGi, it enabled information to be managed, checked and edited at any time and was accessible by desktop computer or via tablet or smart phone.

“Apollo’s contact management system covered the 3000 owners, 5000 individual land titles and 220sq km along the route,” explains Andrew. “The system enabled more than 10,500 telephone calls, emails and site visits with stakeholders to be recorded in a searchable central repository that could be quickly accessed by computer or mobile device.”

An action log assigned and monitored team member tasks, increasing efficiency, enhancing collaboration and ensuring work was completed on time. This enabled site visits to be prioritised and accelerated the issuing of site licences – vital on a project where a small alteration to the design could affect thousands of people.

“An 80% design change resulting from a moderation of the route alignment required 3000 land owner notices to be produced in just one month,” Louise confirms. “Using Apollo meant we were able to meet this challenge.”

Apollo was so successful on the land access management that it is now being used along the wider route as the standard.

More on how smart technology is industry on the Infrastructure Intelligence/Mott MacDonald Digital Infrastructure Hub

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email