Atlantic Geomatics is embarking on an innovative project to map every single plot of each graveyard in England and in doing so double the size of the business. Founder and chief executive Tim Viney explains all to Paul Robertson.
Imagine being able to find out at the click of a button everything you need to know about where and when an ancestor was buried, availability of plots nearby, the flora, fauna and trees – preserving the past, while embracing the future. By using the knowledge of cemetery managers and working closely with burial ground users, entrepreneur Tim Viney and his team has done just that by creating a solution that will facilitate complete burial ground management, protect the heritage this information contains and maximise the potential it offers.
Having started the project in Cumbria, with commissions from Northumberland, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and London among others, Tim’s company Atlantic Geomatics is in advanced discussions to roll out the system England-wide and, in the process, transform the business.
“I was approached three years ago by local parishes to map churchyards,” says Viney. “One wanted an electronic record so I asked them why and they said they wanted to keep it up to date but didn’t know how.
“We developed a prototype by mapping and creating a digital record of every grave. We could say where the space was – the shortage of burial space is well documented – where the trees were, how old they were and type, as well as the current graves.
“We then thought others may have a need so sent a questionnaire to 300 churches across Cumbria. We had 120 replies and 90% didn’t have a map. Most only had one copy of their burial registers, which obviously would be a risk and so I saw an opportunity.”
Viney secured a grant for £90,000 from Innovus, which works in partnership with the University of Manchester, and developed a web-based prototype. He is having ongoing discussions with the Church of England and the Commonwealth War Grave Commission – amongst others – about mapping every single one of the 11,000-odd churchyards in England, with interest also from the Church of Scotland and the Church in Wales.
He enthusiastically demonstrates his brainchild, producing at the click of a button amazing electronic images, pictures and full details of everything within the graveyard from the oldest person to the newest plant. It is a record now protected from theft and fire, a sophisticated, intuitive database that can be easily updated.
“We have worked hard to create an effective workflow, we can now do four graveyards a day, therefore we can bring the costs down,” says Viney. “We have developed a system so the client can employ volunteers or even schools to help them manage it and keep it up to date.
“We went to a secondary school at Wigton and spent a day with 35 GCSE students, showed them the old books, how we map the churchyards, etc. They then tested our system – they were a great testing ground because they didn’t do what they were told. From an educational perspective, it is also a great tool combining history, technology, geography, heritage and culture.
“Currently, if you contact a church they have to find the old register, write it all down then send out the information asked for to the client – our system can do it in 10 seconds. All you need is a computer and a browser. It can be a good revenue earner for both the church and us.”
Viney is also targeting a public platform by the end of 2017, with a systematic roll out over four or five years. He is projecting his workforce will double from its current 20 and turnover to increase significantly from its current £850,000.
“We want to build a team energised by this fascinating project, it is innovative,” he says. “We’ll need people for customer service, logistics, training, IT, software developers as well as more surveyors. It is taking the business to a whole new level. We want to make information available in an easy-to-use format.”
Atlantic Geomatics is a company Viney formed in 2002 after 22 years working overseas in a variety of countries. His journey is fascinating. Born in Reading, he was four when his father was moved to Cumbria, which is where he is now once again based and regards very much as home. Having studied surveying at the University of East London, his passion was to apply his trade overseas. His chance came in 1981 and a job in Iraq, then ruled by Saddam Hussein.
“I had married Julie by this stage and we had two small children so I was not quite sure whether to go,” he recalls. “I was offered it on single status so turned it down but then they offered it on married status.
“I went on my own for three months and when I got to Baghdad they were at war with Iran – the only way in was via Iraqi Airlines to Damascus. We had to close the blinds and the lights went out in Iraqi airspace as we were escorted in by fighter jets.
“We stayed on a compound just outside Fallujah and had no connection with the UK. I was based next to a customs yard so got to know a few drivers. There was one from Carlisle who could exchange goods and messages home in return for giving him a shower and a beer.
“After three months, I thought ‘I can’t bring my wife and family here’. The only way you could make a phone call was by Cable & Wireless from a single room on a Friday [their day off]. I went down to the office and it was packed with people – there was one man at a desk with one telephone and you could see the wires out of the wall. You wrote down on a slip of paper your name and telephone number then waited. Sometimes it was five minutes, others five hours.
“I was eventually called and said to my wife I think I will do another three months then come back as I don’t think you should come out. She replied: ‘We discussed this I am coming out and that’s it’ and put the phone down. I had been waiting hours to speak to her.”
They stayed there for two years. Viney worked for a contracting company from Kuwait mapping an area the size of the Netherlands for irrigation – a huge project. They were taking water out of the Euphrates then channelling it across the desert and into the Tigris.
In 1984, they moved to St Lucia. “Of all the projects that was the most exciting,” says Viney. “We recruited and trained 120 locals to determine who owned all the land – it took three and a half years. We got to know so many people and the inside of the island. We now had three kids and had a wonderful time.
“The land didn’t have good title or secured tenure, there were no records of who owned what. There were all sorts of disputes over whose was what but, out of 1,000, only eight went to the High Court, thanks to getting to people on the ground, resolving disputes – it was a massive business lesson for me in terms of dealing with people from a client relationship perspective.”
It was back to the Middle East and Qatar in 1988, a similar project to St Lucia, dividing the land for future developments that have since transformed the country and Viney’s first exposure to technology. “In St Lucia, it had been 100% paper,” he says. “Here we got to use and develop geographic information systems (GIS) – an intuitive way to build up pictures of people and places using maps.”
Then, in 1994, it was Bermuda for eight years and it was here the idea for Atlantic Geomatics was born. “As a chartered surveyor, I didn’t make huge sums of money but the quality of life and working in such diverse places, with people from all around the world, was amazing,” he says.
“While in Bermuda, I ran the survey department converting all mapping into digital format and then started to manage the government property more efficiently by developing a property information management system (PIMS).”
A Canadian company called Atlantic Geomatics was commissioned to build the PIMS, Viney became friends with the directors and had initial discussions about setting up a UK branch. His friends then left the company but he still went ahead and registered the company in the UK.
He bought a house in Pooley Bridge. “I love the area,” he says. “I met my wife at school and it is where we wanted to settle.
“Atlantic Geomatics began by working out of a small farm building but has evolved, weathered the storms and grown. I took over a small surveying business run by an old friend with three employees. I had 22 years working overseas, signed a deal, with zero handover and was confronted with pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) and national insurance, all of which meant nothing to me.
“Everything was manual, the accounts, ledgers for letters being posted, one for sales, purchase, payroll – it was a good way to learn. We could transform it into a modern business.”
So, in a nutshell what does Atlantic Geomatics do? “We measure the environment, natural or built, providing information for consultants, architects, engineers about what is where,” says Viney. “It is high-level, detailed information. Adding attribution to digital mapping makes the data more powerful and supports better decision making. Add the roads, trees, buildings – a database to click on that tells you how high the tree is, where the lamppost is, when it was serviced – and it is an intuitive, interactive tool.
“It can be used to map stagnant water, record cases of malaria and pinpoint where the outbreak was, allowing much more informed decisions to be made. Utility companies can see if they cut a cable exactly who will be affected. We want to make this software available for everybody, web-based, easy and friendly to use.”
His firm was involved in assessing much of the flood damage and reinstatement works needed in and around Cumbria in 2015, including the collapse of the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, producing a three-dimensional (3D) model so it could be strengthened when rebuilt.
At 63, Viney has been married to Julie for 40 years. Their eldest son Jonathan is a teacher, daughter Rachael a doctor in Newcastle while youngest son Ollie is financial director of Atlantic Geomatics. He also has eight grandchildren, aged zero to five. He continues to be an expert witness in boundary disputes, but it is attracting more investment, interest and making the technology created by Atlantic Geomatics more accessible that keeps him fired up.
“I love the business and the burial ground management system is my big driver,” he says. “It is an ambitious, transformative project. We also want to create a Northern geomatics body for surveying, working with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineering Surveyors to create awareness about what we do. Everywhere else I have worked our industry had to be licensed but not in the UK – I don’t think that is right.
“Our burial ground management system is the first ever complete solution of its kind, offering a comprehensive, high-quality and secure tool that will become a world leading resource.
“Future developments will include a publicly-accessible website, which will be a secure platform to complement the burial ground management portal.
“This sister site will become the ‘go to’ online resource for public research, either for general interest, genealogy searches or to arrange visits to the graves. Data will be accessible through a secure website and mobile applications, making it easy to locate a grave, view images and to search the historical data.
“This will streamline interaction with the public, attract visitors and even have a future income-generating potential for maintenance and management purposes. As a proud Cumbrian company, we’re really excited.”