The Quarantine Server Shuffle

May 14, 2020 | Conservation, GIS, postgis, QGIS

No I’m not doing a post about Covid. Well I sort of am doing a post about covid.

I have a client that placed me on retainer to help them sort through their GEO life. They are an ArcGIS/QGIS/Trimble/Fulcrum/Collector/Compass/Paper map kind of group. Which isn’t any different than anyone else I run into these days. ArcGIS does some of what they want. QGIS does some of what they want. Shapefiles are spread everywhere. Paper maps make an appearance when the digital side of things don’t make sense. They have a GPS and there is something of a workflow – it’s just not great. Every non-profit/conservation group I deal with wrestles with GIS. There is some sort of desktop software, some sort of pile of data. The system is so unimportant you spend 0 dollars on it until the moment it’s important and then there’s a certain amount of hand wringing and everyone just keeps doing what they are doing.

I have some stories to tell on this but the important one is: Pandemic. We were close to the end of things with new gps, new data collection techniques, and a debate on how to store the data. Then Covid happened and I received a text of “Hey we’re closing up for a while…like in 15 minutes we are closing”. Everything (software/data) is stored on one computer and they have one map sitting on AGOL. Probably the last email from that computer was the File Based Geodatabase that stored the important stuff. I don’t think the myriad shapefiles and photos made it out – BUT – that’s not the important part.

The MASH Bugout Episode

The important part is we were able to move the whole project up into “the cloud” with minimal effort. I had an instance of Postgresql/PostGIS running on a Virtual Machine out in the uncharted parts of the internet. So in 2 hours:

  • exported the data out of the File Based Geodatabase into PostGIS
  • Connect QGIS to the postgis instance
  • Connect the important person so she can see it all
  • Set up a backup so that we all feel better.

Which with the exception of a few things (like dealing with their ESRI License), this isn’t terribly out of the ordinary of a setup. I’ve done it for other clients. Why write about it? It’s the first time I’ve done this for a conservation group. Way back in my past life of Federal and early days as a consultant it was “spend one day on IT problems and spend 1 day on what they needed to buy”. You spent half the time being an IT Technical Sales Person vs the guy that helps you with your data. I take for granted how easy stuff is in 2020. If you have $240 US you can have a server sitting out ‘THERE’ (points towards Atlanta because I think that’s where it is). A “I can edit GIS data” powerful enough server. In 2001 my department received a server that was probably in the top 10 in the state for processing power for a small amount of time – I won’t even mention the cost but put 6 numbers down before you get to the decimal space. So Conservation people – in your next line item for IT stuff -> $240 dollars a year for the base of a GIS system (computer included in that).

So in short we:

  • Panic’d
  • Shoved the data into a VM.
  • Keep working with a slightly new setup.

So the rest of the story is going to play out something like:

  • Making the Fulcrum import a little bit smoother
  • Documentation
  • Cartography I hope
  • AGOL Account

…..and the ultimate question is “is this better than what they were doing” and so far I think we’re 80% better. It would be nice if we weren’t in the middle of a crisis BUT since they are also in the middle of a project this hasn’t been something with a deadline. So this week I lay out permissions, map templates, and we try and figure out “Training” to make GIS less this giant black box and fade into the background and make it normal…and with the pandemic we have some room to adjust and play around if it’s not working as they want. Hey and I mentioned ESRI more than once and it didn’t end with “we deleted it” because it has a role also.




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