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This story features in The data Management Challange

The last 10 years has seen an explosion in the volume of data that is being produced by organisations and geological data is no exception. Technology has progressed significantly, making it much easier to collect and transfer large quantities of data. But whilst technology may have progressed, mining companies still face the same ongoing challenges in managing that data and subsequent outputs. Having huge amounts of information at one’s disposal is great but only if value can be extracted from it. Most mining companies are still struggling with the process of meaningful data acquisition, retention and integrated application, which will heavily impact on any company’s bottom line. How do they know which insight to trust and which can just be discarded? How can they create more robust data insight that can be used further down the value chain?

It is a complex problem and geological data management still remains to be a critical issue for companies and CEOs, according to the Geosoft Geoscience Data Management Survey. The survey also uncovered a number of common barriers to success that need to be overcome. These range from a lack of resource for data management and the perceived high cost and difficulty in selecting the right kind of technology solution.

Geologists are not data managers
The Geodata Management Survey further revealed that 60% of respondents noted that their geoscientists spend more than 20% of their time on data management. In addition to these findings, the latest Global Mining
Guidelines (GMG) Group’s survey results [2] state that geologists spend more than 10% of their working week just performing file conversions. Put simply, geologists are struggling to do their job effectively, when they are required to give up a large portion of their day doing something they are not trained to do. Industry expert and Principal Consultant at SD2 Pty Ltd., Scott Dunham comments, “It isn’t a fundamental part of their discipline and not something they generally embrace well. They do know how to collect data, but they really don’t understand how to go about managing that data in the best possible way.” Peter Joynt, Central Product Manager for Seequent, “This is a major challenge that most organisations will recognise and it isn’t helped by the increasing number of software companies that are fragmenting the market. With the right tools and technology, data management should be much more intuitive and should free up geologists’ time to do what they were trained for – analysing and interpreting the geological data to make better decisions, rather than being glorified data administrators.”

Rigorous data collection, ad-hoc management
Couple the lack of understanding and knowledge of data management with a lack of rigorous processes and real inefficiencies remain. It is widely accepted that drilling data is a key asset for mining companies and high standards are applied to the safe and secure storage of drilling data in relational databases. However, when companies look to extract value from this data through interpretation and modelling there are no best practices being followed.

Building a holistic view to tackle workflow efficiency
With the availability of more and more specialist solutions for data storage, geologists face mounting issues on how to connect and ultimately correlate different types of data to achieve a holistic view. Building an interpretive model becomes an overwhelming task as geologists are faced with too much data to easily bring into one place and make accessible.

Peter Joynt comments, “What we are seeing is a growing necessity to safely transfer data between packages, a trend which is at odds with the design and desire of the major mining software providers to provide a ‘complete solution’. Current practices for management, storage and handling of modelled outputs are causing a bottleneck and limiting users’ ability to take advantage of these technological developments.”

There is also the risk that technology leads rather than enables the practitioner. Rob Ferguson, Director of Product Strategy for Seequent, cautions “As an industry, we need to help the geological teams to find smarter ways of accessing the right data, at the right time and make sure geologists continue to trust their own interpretation and decision-making skills.”

With the right tools and technology, data management should be much more intuitive and should free up geologists’ time to do what they were trained for – analysing and interpreting the geological data to make better decisions.

Working in isolation
Mining companies have always had to contend with the challenges of being based in remote geographical locations with geologists commonly working and managing their data independently. Collaborating across teams and regions doesn’t come naturally. Technology has certainly played a part in helping break down this cultural issue of working in isolation, but it hasn’t provided the complete answer. The majority of participants in the aforementioned 2017 survey continue to manage their drill hole and geological data via a folder or file structure on a centralised server versus using a commercial data management solution.

Scott Dunham comments, “A lot of the larger organisations have good standards and policies in place for data management but their ability to implement these standards across all of their mining operations isn’t an easy task. Particularly in the exploration space, which tends to be made up of smaller teams, working at a more rapid pace with a higher turnover of projects.”

Assigning Budget
A separate issue is how planning and budgets are applied to such key aspects as data management. Scott continues, “One of the fundamental flaws that geology faces, is that we don’t incorporate data management into our data collection plans. We will go out and design a drilling programme and put a budget towards that, but not enough thought is given to how the data will be managed once it is collected. Companies don’t assign budget or resources specifically to manage the data. Even with the companies who are seen to be doing a good job, if there is no budget or resource attached, then we can’t expect to have a quality data management programme in place.”

Low Confidence
Most mining companies are still battling with their ‘digital strategy’. There is an assumption that all data management is digital and 3D, but in some organisations there can still be a culture of 2D paper sections and plans. This legacy makes it very difficult for companies to implement effective geological data management. Respondents to the 2017 Geoscience Data Management survey said they had the lowest level of confidence in managing 3D data. In fact, modelling processes and outputs are often critically dependent on the stewardship of individuals and if an employee leaves the business, then they take their knowledge with them, leaving a significant and unaccounted loss to the business.

Valuations of mining companies should be based on insight from trusted data
Extracting the quality and value from the raw data and building up a set of trusted interpretations and insights is what counts when it comes to making investment decisions. Conversely, this is not currently the basis on which companies (or mining projects) are valued. Peter outlines the example; “The value that the stock market gives to a mid-tier listed mining company is a complex mixture of factors including: the assets that they own, estimates of remaining resources, the company’s history in delivering production forecasts, and the level of confidence in the management team. Raw data does not feature in this list; however, the models built off the raw data that allow reliable mine plans to be developed and delivered do.”