Changing the exploration game

“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

This statement by Sun Microsystems Co-Founder Bill Joy, believed to originally have been a retort to Microsoft Founder Bill Gates’ view in the 1990s that his company had a monopoly on talent, is enshrined in management law.

It’s impossible to know whether the foresight in Mr Joy’s statement was calculated or fortuitous, but its relevance has only gained momentum as work and technology have transformed over the years since it was made.

While a company may previously have been limited to a workforce constrained by training, location, language and availability, globalisation has redefined the talent pool all together.

No company could ever put a blanket over the world’s best thinkers, but in 2019 the opportunity and ease with which companies can access diversity of thought is greater than ever.

One mining company looking to capitalise is OZ Minerals, which late last year announced it would team up with open innovation platform Unearthed to crowdsource new exploration targets at the Mount Woods tenements of its Prominent Hill copper-gold mine in South Australia.

For the uninitiated, crowdsourcing in this instance is the process by which a problem and the accompanying data is made available digitally to third parties – individuals and groups – across the globe, who then compete to deliver the best solution. The prize for OZ’s exploration crowdsourcing competition is $1 million.

OZ won’t be the first company to crowdsource for exploration guidance. In 2000, Canada’s Goldcorp famously set itself on a path from a worth of $100 million to $9 billion on the back of targets defined at its Red Lake project through a crowdsourcing challenge.

Where OZ’s challenge is groundbreaking is that rather than simply targeting geologists, it encourages participants to use the data by whatever means they see fit to solve the problem.

In doing so, OZ and Unearthed are opening up a mining problem to an entirely different body of potential competitors, data scientists and innovators, and inviting disruption to an industry facing its fair share of challenges as orebodies become more complex and difficult to read.

“This competition helps us access thousands of very skilled people globally from a range of technical disciplines to solve this specific industry challenge, compared to our relatively small team of in-house experts who naturally lean towards their toolsets of geology and geophysics,” OZ Minerals Chief Executive Officer Andrew Cole told National Mining Chronicle.

One crowded hour

One person uniquely placed to comment on the merit of crowdsourcing exploration targets is Unearthed Crowdsourcing Industry Lead Holly Bridgwater, who previously worked for a decade as a geologist in resource exploration and definition. Ms Bridgwater believes crowdsourcing has the ability to transform a lengthy and intensive geological process.

“One of the issues exploration traditionally faces is timeframes,” she said.

“Things take a very long time, it’s a slow cycle. A company may spend over five years exploring a particular area without necessarily finding anything, then the next company comes in and picks up the same ground after them and has a similar experience.

“Geologically speaking, the key advantage of crowdsourcing is for us to be able to assess an area of ground much faster. Instead of accessing a few opinions, you’ve got access to hundreds and potentially thousands of opinions and you can use that collective brainpower in a short period to collate many different interpretations and see where potential targets might be.”

With OZ looking outside the confines of traditional scientific methods to solve a geological problem the question must be asked – how does OZ’s geology team view the decision to take the crowdsourcing path? The answer is favourable, according to Mr Cole.

“The idea for the challenge originated from our in-house geological team,” he said.

“The competition represents a fundamental change in approach to problem solving. With data scientists, specialists and innovators from multiple disciplines set to participate, we’re expecting competitor results to be based on styles of analysis that are novel to us and the broader exploration community, and therefore produce results outside our current understanding of the Mount Woods area.

“Our geological team is supportive of processes that speed up exploration targeting. The challenge will help us speed up the lifecycle of the Mount Woods project and allow the team to analyse information at a faster rate.

“With these factors and lessons to be learnt, the geological team and OZ Minerals in general can only gain from the results of the competition.”

Ms Bridgwater said the full potential of the competition would only be realised once tradition and innovation came together.

“We’re trying to encourage data scientists to take part, but we’re also trying to encourage them to work with geoscientists – getting that multi-disciplinary approach,” she said.

“We can use data-driven techniques, machine learning and the like, but we have the domain knowledge of the geologist validating the assumptions that those models are creating.

“It is unique that people would be coming up with a target for a project they’ve never seen or had an involvement with, but having said that I think we’re seeing more interest around applications of machine learning and data science to exploration.

“At this stage with the technology it is still really important to have the domain experts, the geologists, working with the data scientists, because meaningful data points are so rare when it comes to identifying ore deposits that you need the context from the expert there.”

An innovative future

For OZ Minerals, the decision to go down a crowdsourcing path is the latest in a series which has put the copper miner at the forefront of innovation in the industry globally.

The company has wholeheartedly embraced digital transformation, adopting enterprise resource planning system SAP and moving its enterprise system to the AWS cloud to lessen the limitations of traditional server hardware.

This has enabled OZ to assemble the information required to open up exploration targeting to data scientists and thinkers more broadly.

“The Explorer Challenge is a progression of our journey,” Mr Cole said. “We have started digital transformation in non- technical areas of the organisation and are now doing the same in the technical arena.”

The data side of things is impressive, but at the end of the day it all comes back to application by people – accessing the smartest people available without constraint.

“As an industry we need to be expanding the traditional borders of our companies to include people with different skills and perspectives from around the world – flexing our organisational frontiers to access digital talent on demand in the face of significant technological transformation,” Mr Cole said.

“Partnering with and accessing as many sectors as possible means we see ideas from outside our industry; things we may have never considered when looked at through mining lenses.”

The OZ Minerals Explorer Challenge launches this month, with winners to be announced in June and drilling of top targets expected in the second half of 2019.

Image: Prominent Hill copper-gold mine in South Australia.

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