Mine Your Data

Why mining companies must improve efficiency through better management of the data they gather 

by John Bacon and Christie Webb

Driven by a need to maximize return on investment, many mining companies use the latest technologies to squeeze out the maximum recoveries in the ore they process.

Yet most of them do not fully leverage their return on another type of investment—in the data that they have gathered about the mine site. Those that do, can gain a significant advantage in shorter timelines, lower costs and more certain regulatory approvals through all stages of the mine’s life.

In some cases, companies have survey and other data that is lost somewhere on microfiche, on paper or other no-searchable forms. That data could, if accessible, give the company a head start on its next venture—giving the term “data mining” a whole new meaning.

Data is likely the single most important owned asset that a mining company has, so it is important to treat it as the vital component it is. Data management is an important skill for companies to master. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Exploration geologists have compiled data on the orebody to build a computerized model—not realizing that their data and model could be easily adapted by the team that is doing the groundwater modeling. As a result, the hydro geologists use time and money to gather their own data and develop their own model.
  • High-resolution, custom satellite imagery purchased by the environmental scientists to develop a baseline study of the site could be used by the team developing the site plan and access roads—if only they knew it was available. However, the mining company’s “stovepipe” culture does not encourage different groups to interact.
  • A mining company needs to demonstrate to financial regulators that its closure plans are effective—but the company lacks the data to do so because the site data and report were lost when an independent consultant’s laptop was stolen out of his vehicle.

Good data management involves storing information in a secure central repository, following prescribed standards regarding its quality (such as image date), with consistent metadata that describes, among other important aspects, how the information was generated and by whom.

One main benefit of the effective management of data is leverage—the ability to use data for multiple purposes, saving the need to gather it more than once and shortening timelines, thus increasing the return on investment. For example, if some of the boreholes used for reserve delineation can be used to monitor groundwater, the groundwater-monitoring program can be completed more quickly and at lower cost. These are important considerations given current commodity prices and the need to get a mine into production quickly to start producing revenue.

There are also efficiency benefits: Employees and external advisors can access the data they need quickly and easily, possibly through a search function displayed on a secure Web browser. Employees in the office, on site, in a hotel room or other location can all use it.

With data centrally stored, management and board members can more easily keep track of the current status of projects in real-time, for better decisions. If one study is completed ahead of schedule, for example, it may be possible to divert staff to projects that are behind.

Another advantage is greater confidence in the data—if it is gathered to meet consistent standards, with consistent meta-data to describe it, the mining company as well as other stakeholders such as investors, government regulators and financial-markets regulators will be more inclined to accept reports and plans based on it. Moreover, financial market standards such as the NI-43101 standard of the Canadian Securities Commission require sophisticated, consistent data storage so that investors can be more certain about what they are buying.

There is greater data security if no critical information is permitted to be stored on laptops; for example, there is no breach of security or loss of data if a laptop vanishes from an employee’s car or the hard drive crashes. Information can be backed up and stored off-site so that an event such as a fire in the company offices is less of a disaster than if data were only stored in one place. It also protects the company from staff turnover, if key employees leave and knowledge is lost as a result.

Several recent trends have made this possible. Many of them are technological: Cost-effective high-volume, high-speed servers to store the data, the ready availability of high-speed data networks to transport it and high-speed, affordable desktop computers that are able to handle large, high-resolution datasets easily and quickly. Add the ability of these networks to accept data from a variety of sources (including external consultants) and the relative ease of secure Web-based access platforms, and the data becomes available to all those who need it. Robust tools for managing data and metadata help as well.

Increasingly, companies are migrating to standardized data management methods, so that all employees are required to follow standard procedures in keeping data stored centrally rather than hoarding it on their hard drives.

So what’s in the way?

Stovepipe mentality—Even within small companies, there is often a “stovepipe mentality” in which groups of employees work almost solely among people within that group, often made up of people with similar training and qualifications. They may not be encouraged to think of the entire enterprise’s good, but rather to make sure that their own function is handled well even if it increases costs and causes delays elsewhere. Employees may not be motivated to share their data with other departments—and those other departments may take a “not invented here” attitude in which they would rather spend time and money developing their own data, rather than work with what is already available.

Management needs to develop an information management culture in which employees see themselves as part of an enterprise as a whole, so that their loyalties lie there rather than with just their own group or members of their own profession or occupation.

Data hoarding—Some employees may like to hoard information in order to increase their power and indispensability, so the company may need to demonstrate that sharing information strengthens everyone’s position by building a stronger organization.

Management needs to set the example and the tone for the company, obligating employees to store data centrally and making sure that other parts of the company know what is available. In some companies, failing to store data centrally in accordance with established protocol and with appropriate metadata, is cause for disciplinary action.

Uncoordinated third parties—With much of the environmental, social, archaeological and other specialized work sub-contracted to third parties, there is a tendency for the raw data to stay with those third parties. These consultants may provide their mining-company clients with paper printouts, or possibly the text and diagrams in electronic form so they can be incorporated into other parts of a report. However, since the client company has paid for the work, it is entitled to the raw data as well, and should be able to press the consultant to provide the data in a consistent form, with metadata attached.

The reasons why this does not always happen may have to do with inertia—“we’ve always done it this way”—or as with some company members, the consultant’s desire to hold onto information as a source of power. Given today’s market realities, it should be no problem for the mining company client to press for the consultant to provide full data in a consistent format, and this procedure can continue when the market rebounds.

Data and information are a powerful source of competitive advantage, provided the company takes full advantage of what they offer, through wise use of the tools now available. To do otherwise is like leaving a promising ore body in the ground rather than extracting it.

John Bacon, B.Sc, OLS GIM ([email protected]), is a member of the Information Management group within the international geotechnical engineering and environmental sciences company Golder Associates Ltd, based in the company’s Mississauga, Canada office. Christie Webb ([email protected]) is senior business development executive with Geosoft Inc., a software and services provider serving the earth exploration industries, based in the company’s Toronto head office.

Vale Turns Exploration Information Into A Corporate Asset

Vale (formerly Companhia Vale do Rio Doce), the second-largest diversified mining and metals company in the world, is turning exploration information into a corporate asset with a solution that focuses on three goals: quality, security and flow.

Ana Maria Goncalves, information manager for Vale’s Exploration and Project Development Division, explained that a few years ago the company envisioned creating a global information management mandate. “At that time, we had many of the elements in place (exploration software, GIS, databases), but no cohesive strategy for exploration information. Also, Vale as a global exploration organization was not yet a reality, but today we have regional offices around the globe,” Goncalves said.

With Vale’s growth and globalization, the need to consolidate and manage the flow of data has also grown. The company created an information management area in the exploration division to address the requirement for standards and practices in how the company collects, organizes, processes, stores and manages its information.

“Our vision is based on understanding and supporting the diversity of exploration needs. In our organization, many different people need access to exploration data, including field and project geologists, geophysicists, analysts and engineers. They all differ in how they work with and interpret data. There is value in that diversity. Our information management strategy must balance the corporate need for greater transparency of data and decision-making with the needs of our exploration professionals,” said Goncalves.

The company started by setting standard procedures and policies to address the basic issues of security, quality and data flow, both internal and external. They identified the different types of data that were most important to exploration, as well as the flow and use of data through the exploration project cycle. Once the company understood the information, it identified the best tools and platforms for dealing with it and then it identified the integration that was needed to create a solution for Vale.

“From the start, we saw our role as providing the resources, processes and technologies to help people organize data. We’re currently establishing data specialist roles in various regions of the world. We also have a team in Brazil that provides data support for exploration projects. On the technology side, we are well underway with getting the technology platforms in place, and a key focus now is communication and training,” says Goncalves.

Information management is essential to the future of Vale. As a result of the exploration activities, Vale generates technical information and knowledge that show the value of projects. This information is confidential and strategic. As such, it needs to be organized and managed as a corporate asset. Among Vale’s new initiatives, the one that has demonstrated the greatest business value is the system for data maintenance, storage and security.

“We have a lot of data, and the ability to put it all into our Geosoft DAP Server means that we don’t have to rely on CDs, DVDs, or the individual who last worked with the data. For the longer term, we are building an information asset that will continue to deliver value in the future. Having main datasets and meta data within our DAP system means we can track and access data in a standard way, as well as identify the latest version,” said Goncalves.

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