By John Skero, Director of Product Management at Elsevier
The process of extracting natural resources has formed the backbone of modern economies – whether this be mining, forestry or oil and gas exploration. But today, many organizations have recognized the urgent need to find ways to produce natural resources in a more sustainable way. This goal is essential; the impacts of climate change are being felt all over the world, and by the end of the century, up to 40% of the Amazon could become grasslands.
At the same time, COVID-19 has forced companies to think smarter about how they operate. The pandemic’s impact is seeing demand for resources like oil fluctuate, causing companies to consider alternatives. As a result, research into areas like alternate sustainable resources and environmentally friendly extraction processes is growing. However, for the natural resources industry to undergo the necessary changes to drive sustainability, make the sector more efficient and build resilience in a changing world, a digital overhaul is first required. Currently, natural resources lags behind other industries like biotech, pharmaceutical and medical in its digitalization journey and its ability to obtain insights from data – which is holding it back.
The data management challenge
Many of the digitalization challenges in resource exploration are related to data management. Critical information, like seismic profiles, maps or well logs, are often stored in incompatible formats or locked away in silos. Not only are large amounts of data thus rendered inaccessible, but once accessed may not immediately be usable. The result is large volumes of data are nearly impossible to search manually at speed. In fact, geoscientists can spend a large proportion of their time searching for and formatting information, impacting the time they can spend on analysis. Like a chain reaction, search difficulties and unstructured data can then result in further issues – for example, duplicate purchasing of data, causing a direct financial loss.
While individually these digital flaws may seem small, the ultimate result is an inability to compete and adapt. A lack of data structure means organizations cannot respond quickly to time-sensitive opportunities, like lease sale bids, and contributes to the high failure rate of new ventures. In addition, the inability to locate and analyze data prevents improvements in output or efficiency for existing natural resources assets. The sector is already embracing technological hardware innovations, with real-time ore grade sensors in drill bits or the use of robots for oil pipeline fixing, but the data and analytical systems backbone is just as critical. With significant quantities of data and information available due to technological advances, the problem is how to manage and utilize it most efficiently to improve sustainability, efficiency and profits.
Opening new doors
Adapting practices to store and search formatted and unformatted data (e.g., maps) will save those engaged in exploration time and money. It will also make the industry more efficient and productive, and therefore sustainable in the long term. As well as ensuring data are not kept in silos and are easily retrievable regardless of format and structure, there are several other considerations for building a modern digital natural resource and exploration organization.
It is important to design architecture that is flexible, as we now know all too well how unplanned events can cause drastic, unpredicted changes. For this to succeed, organizations must select a technology partner that can fully meet the requirements of the business. This is important as expert, domain-specific tools can also provide assurances regarding the trustworthiness and validity of scientific data and research, an essential advantage over consumer search engines. Beyond this, updating technology also opens new doors, like Natural Language Processing (NLP). Using tools with NLP enables algorithms to ‘understand’ the content in a document, meaning unstructured data can be read and searched more efficiently. Employing the correct digital systems for searching and formatting data can cut research time by up to 50%, making these changes worth the effort.
Digital transformation for the future
Adoption of new data practices are needed now to ensure the natural resources industry can address the pressing issues it currently faces – making industry more efficient and adaptable to whatever the future brings. The digital regeneration of the natural resources sector is not just needed but wanted. Newly trained recruits to the industry will expect high levels of digitalization, and two thirds of natural resource exploration professionals said analytics is one of the most important capabilities for transforming their company. Transformation is also essential as we emerge from a difficult 2020 into a 2021 in which many national economies and private businesses will be operating under tighter spending controls. Digital transformation will help organizations become more efficient while keeping productivity high.
By embracing not only new technology, but better data management, the industry will be able to respond to critical opportunities faster, utilize their current assets most efficiently, give employees the working experience they expect, and build a more sustainable workplace. An overhaul of this kind would not only benefit the natural resources industry financially but will benefit the world by allowing for more sustainable practices. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the choice becomes simple; digitalization is the way forward.