Private public data

Our recent trip to the AAPG Annual Convention in Houston was much enhanced by meeting some inspiring geoscientist–programmers. People like...

  • Our old friend Jacob Foshee hung out with us and built his customary awesomeness.
  • Wassim Benhallam, at the University of Utah, came to our Rock Hack and impressed everyone with his knowledge of clustering algorithms, and sedimentary geology.
  • Sebastian Good, of Palladium Consulting, is full of beans and big ideas — and is a much more accomplished programmer than most of us will ever be. If you're coding geoscience, you'll like his blog.
  • We had a laugh with Nick Thompson from Schlumberger, who we bumped into at a 100% geeky meet-up for Python programmers interested in web sockets. I cannot explain why we were there.

Perhaps the most animated person we met was Ted Kernan (right). A recent graduate of Colorado School of Mines, Ted has taught himself PHP, one of the most prevalent programming languages on the web (WordPress, Joomla, and MediaWiki are written in PHP). He's also up on all the important bits of web tech, like hosting, and HTML frameworks.

But the really cool thing is what he's built: a search utility for public well data in the United States. You can go and check it out at — and if you like it, let Ted know!

Actually, that's not even the really cool thing. The really cool thing is how passionate he is about exposing this important public resource, and making it discoverable and accessible. He highlights the stark difference between Colorado's easy access to digital well data, complete with well logs, and the sorry state of affairs in North Dakota, where he can't even get his app in to read well names. 'Public data' can no longer mean "we'll sell you a paper printout for $40". It belongs on the web — machines can read too.

More than just wells

There's so much potential power here — not only for human geoscientists looking for well data, but also for geoscientist–programmers building tools that need well data. For example, I imagine being able to point at any public well to grab its curves and make a quick synthetic. Ready access to open services like Ted's will free subsurface software from the deadweight of corporate databases filled with years of junk, and make us all a bit more nimble. 

We'll be discussing open data, and openness in general, at the Openness Unsession in Calgary on the afternoon of 12 May — part of GeoConvention 2014. Join us!


Can openness make us better? Help us find out!

Last year's Unsolved Problems Unsession (above) identified two openness issues — Less secrecy, more sharing and Free the data — as the greatest unsolved problems in our community. This year, we'll dig into that problem. Here's the blurb:

At the Unsolved Problems Unsession last year, this community established that Too much secrecy is one of the top unsolved problems in our industry. This year, we will dig into this problem, and ask what kind of opportunities solving it could create. What forces cause closedness to persist? What are the advantages of being more open? Where is change happening today? Where can we effect change next?

We offer no agenda, no experts, no talks, and no answers. This is an open space for everyone to come and be their best and brightest self. So bring it.

GeoConvention Monday 12 May, afternoon in Telus 108 (ground floor on the north side)

No experts? No answers? What on earth are we up to? Well, we think bringing questions to a group of engaged professionals is more fun than bringing answers. The idea is to talk about our greatest aspirations for our discipline, and how we can find out if greater transparency and openness can help us achieve them.

If you know someone else who would enjoy this, please tell them about it or bring them along. I hope we see you there on 12 May!


More AAPG highlights

Here are some of our highlights from the second half of the AAPG Annual Convention in Houston.

Conceptual uncertainty in interpretation

Fold-thrust belt, offshore Nigeria. Virtual Seismic Atlas.Fold-thrust complex, deepwater Nigeria. Virtual Seismic Atlas.Rob Butler's research is concerned with the kinematic evolution of mountain ranges and fold thrust belts in order to understand the localization of deformation across many scales. Patterns of deformed rocks aren't adequately explained by stress fields alone; they are also controlled by the mechancial properties of the layers themselves. Given this fact, the definition of the layers becomes a doubly important part of the interpretation.

The biggest risk in structural interpretation is not geometrical accuracy but whether or not the concept is correct. This is not to say that we don't understand geologic processes. Rather, a section can always be described in more than one way. It is this risk in the first order model that impacts everything we do. To deal with conceptual uncertainty we must first capture the range, otherwise it is useless to do any more refinement. 

He showed a crowd-sourced compiliation of 24 interpretations from the Virtual Seismic Atlas as a way to stack up a series of possible structural frameworks. Fifteen out of twenty-four interviewees interpreted a continuous, forward-propagating thrust fault as the main structure. The disagreements were around the existence and location of a back thrust, linkage between fore- and back-thrusts, the existence and location of a detachment surface, and its linkage to the fault planes above. Given such complexity, "it's rather daft," he said, "to get an interpretation from only one or two people." 

CT scanning gravity flows

Mike Tilston and Bill Arnott gave a pair of talks about their research into sediment gravity flows in the lab. This wouldn't be newsworthy in itself, but their 2 key innovations caught our attention: 

  1. A 3D velocity profiler capable of making 23 measurements a second
  2. The flume tank ran through a CT scanner, giving a hi-res cross-section view

These two methods sidestep the two major problems with even low-density (say 4% by weight) sediment gravity flows: they are acoustically attenuative, and optically opaque. Using this approach Tilston and Arnott investigated the effect of grain size on the internal grain distribution, finding that fine-grained turbidity currents sustain a plug-like wall of sediment, while coarse-grained flows have a more carpet-like distribution. Next, they plan to look at particle shape effects, finer grain sizes, and grain mixtures. Technology for the win!

Hypothesizing a martian ocean

Lorena Moscardelli showed topograhic renderings of the Eberswalde delta (right) on the planet Mars, hypothesizing that some martian sedimentary rocks have been deposited by fluvial processes. An assertion that posits the red planet with a watery past. If there are sedimentary rocks formed by fluids, one of the fluids could have been water. If there has been water, who knows what else? Hydrocarbons? Imagine that! Her talk was in the afternoon session on Space and Energy Frontiers, sandwiched by less scientific speakers raising issues for staking claims and models for governing mineral and energy resources away from earth. The idea of tweaking earthly policies and state regulations to manage resources on other planets, somehow doesn't align with my vision of an advanced civilization. But the idea of doing seismic on other planets? So cool.

Poster gorgeousness

Matt and I were both invigorated by the quality, not to mention the giant size, of the posters at the back of the exhibition hall. It was a place for the hardcore geoscientists to retreat from the bright lights, uniformed sales reps, and the my-carpet-is-cushier-than-your-carpet marketing festival. An oasis of authentic geoscience and applied research.

We both finally got to meet Brian Romans, a sedimentologist at Virginia Tech, amidst the poster-paneled walls. He said that this is his 10th year venturing to the channel deposits that crop out in the Magallanes Basin of southern Chile. He is now one of the three young, energetic profs behind the hugely popular Chile Slope Systems consortium.

Three years ago he joined forces with Lisa Stright (University of Utah), and Steve Hubbard (University of Calgary) and formed the project investigating processes of sediment transfer across deepwater slopes exposed around Patagonia. It is a powerhouse of collaborative research, and the quality of graduate student work being pumped out is fantastic. Purposeful and intentional investigations carried out by passionate and tech-savvy scientists. What can be more exciting than that?

Do you have any highlights of your own? Please leave a note in the comments.


Communicating geoscience

On Day 1 of the AAPG Annual Convention, I spent most of the morning in a special session entitled Communicating Our Science. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the subject. Please share yours in the comments!

This was primarily a panel discussion, but the convenors took several of questions from the audience of about 40 people. If the room had been smaller, and the audio system better-behaved, we might have had more of a conversation.

The panel consisted of three academics, two journalists, and a political lobbyist. While most of the panel had some direct experience in industry, there was a conspicuous and slightly mystifying absence of anyone currently working in industry. There was a less surprising but possibly more troubling absence of anyone representing 'the public' (whoever they are). The panelists were:

Questions covered topics like "Where can I get information about energy issues?" (the EIA is a good start) to "How should I answer emotional questions about fracking?"(Honestly... and send people to Frack-Land). Most of the answers focused on engaging with the public, or with the press. But I'm most interested in how our own community communicates with itself, so the question I wanted to ask (I wasn't chosen by the chairs) was this:

The panel advises industry to engage with the public and communicate with authenticity and transparency, and I agree completely. But my perception is that we don't model this type of communication when we talk to each other, never mind the public — companies are wary of sharing methods and data, and we're most comfortable with controlled, one-way communication like talks, papers, and panel discussions. Does the panel agree, and if so, does it have any recommendations for improving how our technical community talks to itself? 

I do love the concept of sessions like this — we absolutely need more of them. But I think we need to think more about the purpose, and what we can get out of them. For example, no-one was capturing the proceedings, as far as I could tell (and a video would certainly be the wrong way to do that here). And there was no way to circle back to the crowd for a reflection on the panel's responses. We can do better.

That said, there were plenty of nuggets of wisdom from the panel. One of my favourites was a remark from Iain Stewart: "I don't think we should be focusing on increasing the public's scientific literacy, we should be focusing on building trust." At the very end, the panel were asked for advice for AAPG and the professional community:

  • AAPG should build a repository of links, blogs, and FAQs about geoscience — Jim Reilly
  • We need more data to support our reporting and outreach — Michael Zehr
  • Technical societies should offer writing courses and seminars — Heather Saucier (here's one :)
  • Industry has to be more proactive with public engagement — Jane Whaley
  • Public engagement is not an option anymore, it's a core skill — Donald Paul
  • Communicators should embrace the human side of science with enthusiasm — Iain Stewart

I could get behind all of those. What about you?


Dynamic geology at AAPG

Brad Moorman stands next to his 48 inch (122 cm) Omni Globe spherical projection system on the AAPG exhibition floor, greeting passers by drawn in by its cycling animations of Getech's dynamic plate reconstructions. His map-lamp projects evolutionary visions of geologic processes like a beacon of inspiration for petroleum explorers.

I've attended several themed sessions over the first day and a half at AAPG and the ones that have stood out for me have had this same appeal.

Computational stratigraphy

Processes such as accommodation rate and sedimentation rate can be difficult to unpeel from stratal geometries. Guy Prince's PhD Impact of non-uniqueness on sequence stratigraphy used a variety of input parameters and did numerical computations to make key stratigraphic surfaces with striking similarity. By forward modeling the depositional dynamics, he showed that there are at least two ways to make a maximum flooding surface, a sequence boundary, and top set aggradations. Non-uniqueness implies that there isn't just one model that fits the data, nor two, however Guy cleverly made simple comparisons to illustrate such ambiguities. The next step in this methodology, and it is a big step, is to express the entire model space: just how many solutions are there? 

If you were a farmer here, you lost your land

Henry Posamentier, seismic geomorphologist at Chevron, showed extremely high-resolution 3D sparker seismic imaging just beneath the seafloor in the Gulf of Thailand. Because this locale is more than 1000 km from the nearest continental shelf, it has been essentially unaffected by sea-level change, making it an ideal place to study pure fluvial depositional patterns. Such fluvial systems result in reservoirs in their accretionary point bars, but they are hard to predict.

To make his point, Henry showed a satellite image of the Ping River from a few years ago in the north of Chiang Mai, where meander loops had shifted sporadically in response to one flood season: "If you were a farmer here, you lost your land."

Wells can tell about channel thickness, and seismic may resolve the channel width and the sinuosity, but only a dynamic model of the environment can suggest how well-connected is the sand.

The evolution of a single meandering channel belt

Ron Boyd from ConocoPhillips showed a four-step process investigating the evolution of a single channel belt in his talk, Tidal-Fluvial Sedimentology and Stratigraphy of the McMurray Formation.

  1. Start with a cartoon facies interpretation of channel evolution.
  2. Trace out the static geomorphological model on seismic time slices.
  3. Identify directions of fluvial migrations point by point, time step by time step.
  4. Distribute petrophysical properties within each channel element in chronological sequence.

Mapping the dynamics of a geologic scenario along a timeline gives you access to all the pieces of a single geologic puzzle. But what really matters is how that puzzle compares with the handful of pieces in your hand.

More tomorrow — stay tuned.

Google Earth imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, maps ©2014 Google

This post was modified on April 16, 2014, mentioning and giving redirects to Getech.

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