GWPrime

We are Witnessing the Second Digital Transformation

While the first digital transformation was about getting the data in order, making it available and standardizing it, the second digital transition is around the use of that data. It’s about being able to do things that we couldn’t do in the past, says Matt Harrison, Director of Data, Services and Computational Infrastructure at BRGM, the French Geological Survey.

By Anamika Das

Can you throw light on some of the recent initiatives of BRGM?

BRGM is a scientific organization specializing in the subsurface. Being a French government organization, we have responsibilities and goals in several areas. For instance, there is a French territory in the Indian Ocean called Mayotte, which has been witnessing active volcanism for the last two to three years. We have done a lot of research and are trying to understand the behavior of the volcano — what has happened and what might happen in the future. Then there is a lot of work going on concerning landslides. Because of Climate Change, some landslides have become more significant in some areas than they have been in the past, and so we have been working with a number of local and regional authorities on that. We are also working in the energy space. Traditionally, you don’t expect the Geological Survey being actively involved in the energy sector, but we have been in that space for a while — working on oil and gas and the necessities around energy networks. We have been involved on the geothermal side not only in France, but across Europe. There is  quite a lot of work happening on both deep and shallow geothermal energy.

I think we are going through a second digital transformation. While the first digital transformation was about getting the data in order, making it available and standardizing it, the second digital transition is around the use of that data. It’s about being able to do things that we couldn’t do in the past. For example, using tools like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to mine some of those data resources that now are better managed than they were before, and integrating those with data from a variety of different organizations. We are currently part of a big project, involving a variety of organizations, which is looking into some of the regional environmental challenges. One of the outcomes of the project is exploring the possibility of digital twins, which present the opportunity of bringing together users, data providers, industry and the government to look at environment-related issues. So, a lot is going on and it is quite exciting.

BRGM carried out the research on the seismic activity of Mayotte in an oceanographic campaign called SISMAORE to understand what has happened and predict what might happen | Picture courtesy: BRGM

Subsurface has been acknowledged as a multifunctional natural resource that provides physical space, water, energy, materials, and support for surface life. How is BRGM working towards developing better knowledge about the subsurface, and what kind of challenges are you facing in doing that?

To start with, we face challenges in engaging with new technologies. While some of those technologies are relatively easy to use, the others, like AI, are quite complex. There are several, very big mistakes you could make by misusing AI. Then there is a challenge around the cost of data collection. Let’s face it, collecting subsurface data could be expensive. There is always scope for more data and improving the rate at which it is collected — though we have gotten faster and are collecting more data than we did in the past. Today, people are looking for higher resolution answers and some of those answers are about understanding a current situation, while the others are about predicting the future — what’s going to happen to groundwater levels with the changing weather systems, etc.

We always need access to more high-fidelity data to exploit new techniques and technologies. I think there prevails an expectation in society that we know so much more about the subsurface, but the fact is that we don’t have that much data. Remote Sensing has helped enormously in filling the gaps, but there are still very few satellite platforms that can penetrate below a few centimetres of the subsurface. You can infer things — know a lot about the chemistry of the ground from the vegetation that grows on top of it, but for direct measurement, you need to have some kind of validation through real fieldwork.

How is BRGM working towards supporting and strengthening the private industry in France, and is public-private partnership a part of that effort?

There has been quite a push within BRGM and from our stakeholders to engage more with the private industry, so we have a number of key strategic partnerships with certain organizations — some of them being IT oriented. In the last decade, we have strengthened our relationship with industry by recognizing commercial organizations as key stakeholders, and involving them in discussions about the data that we make available. Through initiatives like INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) at the European level, we have published data and content in an interoperable way, and have publicized it through openly accessible data catalogues.  Something like this was rather alien to organizations like ours about 10-15 years ago.

A number of these partnerships are around technology, while some of them are scientific, because these organizations have recognized that scientific advancements are important for their underlying business models. So, we work together in areas like disaster risk assessment and service delivery, as on our own, being a public sector organization, we might not be as efficient as others. Plus, this also  enables us to access and share skills, especially in new technologies like AI. So, we don’t need to necessarily have AI specialists in Remote Sensing pattern recognition; we could use the services of another organization to be able to deliver some of those things.

The MAYOBS surveys are carried out by BRGM to follow the evolution of the seismic and volcanic phenomenon which has affected the island of Mayotte since May 2018 | Picture courtesy: BRGM

In what ways is the agency using its geological expertise to support circular economy, especially at a time when France, like the rest of the world, is feeling the impact of Climate Change?

Climate Change is absolutely recognized as a strategic challenge at the highest level. In a scientific organization, some challenges are occasionally difficult to deal with, as they don’t fit in a particular department. Also, to some extent, scientific organizations are aligned to a structure around specific competencies, rather than societal challenges. But on the issue of climate, the group of program directors, including myself, are working on being able to respond to this challenge. The concept of a circular economy is quite an interesting one because I think that as the Geological Survey, we have  always been involved in the primary raw material end of things. To understand the economics of a circular economy, one must know that in some sectors recycling is the most important thing, while in the others it’s still at the research and exploration stage.

For instance, take the case of some lesser known minerals that aren’t  common.  These rare Earth elements are very important, and I feel that areas like these have been in a way have been overlooked at the political level. I could probably point out some specialists who have always said that these elements are key to the future of mankind on the planet, but I don’t think they have  had the political following in the past. This is an interesting time and certain things are being looked at in a way they weren’t seen previously.

“There has been quite a push within BRGM and from our stakeholders to engage more with the private industry, so we have a number of key strategic partnerships with certain organizations — some of them being IT oriented”

Can you tell us something about France’s larger digital strategy and BRGM’s role in that?

I have only started in France in the last year and am more familiar with the European digital strategy than the French digital strategy. However, some of the key aspects of the country’s digital strategy include interoperability and simplification. It’s interesting that if you read the official documents, interoperability isn’t portrayed as the most important thing, and there is a lot of stress on technology simplification and inclusivity, which actually result in interoperability. From a societal point of view, the strategy lays emphasis on simplifying interactions between an individual and the government, or between datasets. We represent the subsurface in some of those interoperability discussions, both at the French and European levels. There is also a focus on a network of research infrastructure.

In my opinion, the biggest push in France is around AI, and it’s beginning to now show results. It is firmly believed that AI is going to be an important part of the future. In the latter half of last year, we did an internal survey at BRGM and discovered that there were over 40 projects that had an element of AI. That doesn’t mean that those projects were all about AI; the technology was being used in some way or the other. Predicting groundwater levels, mining data, or doing machine reading can be a few examples. Much of that is being supported by the French state through various funding initiatives. We are also working with a number of universities around AI.

“Through initiatives like INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) at the European level, we have published data and content in an interoperable way, and have publicized it through openly accessible data catalogues”

You have had experience of working in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, North America and South America. How are the national mapping organizations in these regions different in terms of technology adoption, innovation and style of working?

Well, of course there is a difference in working of different agencies and governments in different regions. For instance, in less advanced economies, there is an understanding about some of the new technologies and the desire to work with bigger mapping agencies and organizations. On the other hand, in bigger and well financed economies, there is focus around expediting the adoption and use of new technologies. I have worked in a couple of countries in Africa in the last few years and found that it was really about how they could ready themselves for AI and the opportunities that the technology brought. The geosciences community is slightly slow in the uptake of new technologies and new opportunities. I guess we could look at our sister sciences and repurpose some of the things in some of the tools that have been built around data management.

Then there is the concept of digital twins, which present the opportunity of bringing everyone together as everybody has a part to play in it. These digital replicas are about making data available and useful to a wide range of stakeholders. Some countries are more interested in the development of city economies, while the others are focused on natural resources like water. But all of them face the same set of challenges around interoperability, updating existing models and scale.

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