It's time to begin a new exploration project.
But before the geologist handling the job can begin applying his exploration expertise, he may spend hours, weeks, even months locating, gathering, sorting and verifying the data needed.
The math isn't hard to figure -- and more and more, explorationists are spending outsize amounts of time managing data instead of interpreting it.
The barriers to effective use of data can be described as an obstacle course.
"Your (AAPG) membership runs that course every day," said John D'Angelo, manager of Business Transformation Services for Schlumberger GeoQuest.
Before interpretation work can begin, many steps may need to be preformed -- "primarily manually and primarily by the interpreter," D'Angelo said.
The needed data may already be in house, but may reside on tape, floppy disks or paper logs in some employee's filing cabinet.
"While you're working with the data, someone down the hall may be looking for the same type of data, or ordering and paying for the same information," D'Angelo said.
"Data management has become part of the interpreters' job," he continued. "They may spend 30 percent to 70 percent of their time finding, translating and cleaning it up instead of interpreting and finding oil."
Data formats can raise additional hurdles. Paper or digital records must be entered into the format of choice, then validated and possibly corrected.
Deadlines loom; new data may arrive, D'Angelo said, "and you're still not close to interpreting.
"Do you start with less data than you know is available or start over again with more data?" he asked. "There is a trade off between doing it well and doing it quickly.
"The industry is moving away from support personnel for interpreters and putting more into interpretation," he continued. "Good support people are expensive, too. You can't just call in a 'temp' for this."
For some projects, he added, this portion of the job may take months.
Elements and Levels
Houston geologist and consultant Sandi Barber agreed that the trend in many companies is to trim support staff, even while the "care and feeding of those monsters (workstations)" continues to grow.
If finding the data is the first hurdle, she said, integrating information from different databases can be even more frustrating.
"Many companies have more than one software," Barber said, "and usually they do not easily share data and interpretation."
Better methods are beginning to take shape in the industry -- slowly and by stages.
Development of interactive links between databases is one important step being pursued by several large companies in a project called "Open Spirit," Barber said, adding that similar commercial efforts are under way.
D'Angelo and Bob Troy, a consultant with Holland and Davis, refer to corporate "realignment" -- using new technology and streamlining work flows to increase productivity and exploration success.
With new technology, data management chores can be performed in the background "with supervision, but by a technician or machines," D'Angelo said.
"With 'realignment,' we move data management out of the interpretation work flow," he said. "Data comes in and goes into a standard format. When you need it, it's like getting electricity from a wall socket or a dial tone on the telephone."
The alignment process, according to Troy, requires five key elements:
- Processes and procedures.
- Performance systems.
- An action plan.
Processes and procedures are the steps taken to implement the technology -- "how you make the changes and use the equipment," Troy said.
The performance system is a way to gauge performance.
"How well are the equipment and people performing?" Troy said. "If you can't measure it, you can't control it."
D'Angelo and Troy use a five-level E&P Data Management Maturity Model to further illustrate their ideas.
The levels, from 1 to 5, include:
- Corporate Competency.
- Predictable Risk.
- Fully Optimized.
Level 1 depends largely on the talents of individuals, whose expertise in exploration and data management may easily be lost if the person leaves the organization.
At the upper end, Level 5, many procedures are totally operated and the system is virtually risk free.
D'Angelo said NASA's Johnson Space Center strives to operate at Level 5, where the emphasis on eliminating risk overshadows mere productivity.
According to Troy, the much higher costs make Levels 4 and 5 unfeasible in most businesses, where some risk and losses are expected and acceptable.
The number of companies functioning at Level 3 probably could be numbered on two hands, D'Angelo said.
"Most North American (exploration) companies are at some stage of Level 2. Elsewhere in the world companies are mainly at Level 1," he said.
Level 2 includes standardized tasks and introduction of advanced technology. Individual expertise remains crucial.
"Lose an individual and you lose your 'data management system,'" D'Angelo said.
At Level 3, capabilities and procedures become institutionalized with the help of mature technologies. Results become more predictable.
"Their life changes dramatically with the extra time available for interpretation," he said.
At higher levels, the cost of ensuring success becomes non-commercial, Troy said.
"At Level 3, it may cost $300," D'Angelo said, "compared to $5,000 to debug a line of code at Level 5."
Organizations may decide to identify their own obstacle course internally or with the help of consultants. Many already know where problems lie, but need advice on finding solutions, Troy said.
Developing trends in the industry include data "warehouses" and application service providers, or ASPs, Troy said.
Warehousing allows data to be stored after it has been verified and put into a readily accessible format.
Users request the data with the expectation of quickly receiving information that meets certain standards.
"In an ideal world, the user sits down and all interfaces are transparent -- just click and search," Troy said. "It doesn't matter where the data are stored.
"(But) most companies are struggling with data warehouse issues," he added. "Exploration data is lagging behind other industries and data management is just coming into its own.
"Warehousing may mean sharing with other companies and carving out your own areas."
The concept makes some companies uneasy, but there are many analogous models on the Internet -- and the principles can be applied to large or small organizations.
"If you have data to store and use -- if you're hiring people to physically move data -- you need to consider data management services," Troy said.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service says its geophysicists' productivity has increased up to 70 percent with the use of "network attached storage," according to Mark Zimmer, a consultant with Affiliated Computer Services who helps manage the MMS storage systems.
The system allows the MMS to store huge amounts of data required by the agency's warehousing and oversight role in exploration, and it eliminates the need to shuffle data between local servers and 8mm tape.
This, Zimmer said, saves hours and even days for the geoscience teams using the data.
Avoiding the 'Big Bucket'
Network storage allows companies to avoid storing all data in "one big bucket," according to Tim Bird, information management systems development director for Landmark Graphics.
Data stored in smaller chunks can be more easily managed, Bird said.
The emphasis shifts gathering or holding all your data "just in case" to pulling the data you need in a "just-in-time strategy," Bird said.
Bird said increased cooperation and dialog among exploration companies and vendors is fueling progress in data management.
Developers also are looking outside their own industry for ideas. Imaging techniques have been borrowed from the medical field. Compression and search technologies also have been borrowed.
Search technology from Internet companies are proving useful as explorationists shift to off-site data storage and "browser-type access."
Barber and Bird noted that high-speed data transfer lines are needed for some use of stored and shared data, such as team analysis.
Team members may be in different parts of the world, but able to work with the same data over a network, Bird said.
This approach is more effective in developed, urban areas where high-speed lines are more readily available, he noted.
In other words, it can be more helpful to team members in Houston "than the guy in Angola," Bird said.
Besides simple data storage, developers are devising ways to capture the interpreters' knowledge and keep it with the data, Bird said. This may take the form of attaching the interpreters' written notes or a voice recording to be available to the next person to use the data.
With high-speed, high-volume Internet connectivity, "we can use an ASP to run applications (to analyze and interpret data) instead of doing it internally," Troy said.
Internal use may include additional costs of training and upkeep, he said.
Storing data and accessing application off-site can allow a company to focus on its core business, rather than on upkeep of data and software, Bird said.
D'Angelo said he hopes to survey companies about their data management practices and their productivity.
"We can't say data management drives E&P success," he said, "but there is definitely a correlation."