Digitalization... of what?

I've been hearing a lot about 'digitalization', or 'digital transformation', recently. What is this buzzword?

The general idea seems to be: exploit lots and lots of data (which we already have), with analytics and machine learning probably, to do a better job finding and producing fuel and energy safely and responsibly.

At the centre of it all is usually data. Lots of data, usually in a lake. And this is where it all goes wrong. Digitalization is not about data. And it's not about technology either. Or cloud. Or IoT.

Interest in the terms "digital transformation" and "digitalization" since 2004, according to  Google Trends . The data reveal a slight preference for the term "digitalization" in central and northern Europe.  Google Ngram Viewer  indicates that the term "digitalization" has been around for over 100 years, but it is also a medical term connected with the therapeutic use of  digitalis . Just to be clear, that's not what we're talking about.

Interest in the terms "digital transformation" and "digitalization" since 2004, according to Google Trends. The data reveal a slight preference for the term "digitalization" in central and northern Europe. Google Ngram Viewer indicates that the term "digitalization" has been around for over 100 years, but it is also a medical term connected with the therapeutic use of digitalis. Just to be clear, that's not what we're talking about.

It's about people

Oh no, here I go with the hand-wavy, apple-pie "people not process" nonsense... well, yes. I'm convinced that it's humans we're transforming, not data or technology. Or clouds. Or Things.

I think it's worth spelling out, because I think most corporations have not grasped the human aspect yet. And I don't think it's unreasonable to say that petroleum has a track record of not putting people at the centre of its activities, so I worry that this will happen again. This would be bad, because it might mean that digitalization not only fails to get traction — which would be bad enough because this revolution is long overdue — but also that it causes unintended problems.

Without people, digital transformation is just another top-down 'push' effort, with too much emphasis on supply. I think it's smarter to create demand, or 'pull', so that professionals are asking for support, and tools, and databases, and are engaged in how those things are created.

Put technical professionals at the heart of the revolution, and the rest will follow. The inverse is not true.

Strategies

This is far from an exhaustive list, but here are some ideas for ways to get ahead in digital transformation:

  • Make it easy for digitally curious people to dip a toe in. Build a beginner-friendly computing environment, and encourage people to use it. Challenge your IT people to support a culture of experimentation and creativity. 
  • Give those curious professionals access to professional development channels, whether it's our courses, other courses, online channels like Lynda.com or Coursera, or whatever. 
  • Build a community of practice for 'scientific computing'. Whether it's a Yammer group or something more formal, be sure to encourage frequent face-to-face meetups, and perhaps an intranet portal.
  • Start to connect subsurface professionals with software engineers, especially web programmers and data scientists, elsewhere in the organization. I think the best way is to embed programmers into technical teams. 
  • Encourage participation in external channels like conferences and publications, data science contests, hackathons, open source projects, and so on. I guarantee you'll see a step change in skills and enthusiasm.

The bottom line is that we're looking for a profound culutral change. It will be slow. More than that, it needs to be slow. It might only take a year or two to get traction for an idea like "digital first". But deeper concepts, like "machine readable microservices" or "data-driven decisions" or "reproducible workflows", must take longer because you can't build that high without a solid foundation. Successfully applying specific technologies like deep learning, augmented reality, or blockchain, will certainly require a high level of technology literacy, and will take years to get right.

What's going on with scientific computing in your organization? Are you 'digitally curious'? Do you feel well-supported? Do you know others in your organization like you?


The circuit board image in the thumbnail for this post is by Carl Drougge, licensed CC-BY-SA.

Tune in to Undersampled Radio

Back in the summer I mentioned Undersampled Radio, the world's newest podcast about geoscience. Well, geoscience and computers. OK, machine learning and geoscience. And conferences.

We're now 25 shows in, having started with Episode 0 on 28 January. The show is hosted by Graham 'Gram' Ganssle, a consulting and research geophysicist based in New Orleans, and me. Appropriately enough, I met Gram at the machine-learning-themed hackathon we did at SEG in 2015. He was also a big help with the local knowledge.

I broadcast from one of the phone rooms at The HUB South Shore. Gram has the luxury of a substantial book-lined office, which I imagine has ample views of paddle-steamers lolling on the Mississippi (but I actually have no idea where it is). 

To get an idea of what we chat about, check out the guests on some recent episodes:

Better than cable

The podcast is really more than just a podcast, it's really a live TV show, broadcasting on YouTube Live. You can catch the action while it's happening on the Undersampled Radio channel. However, it's not easy to catch live because the episodes are not that predictable — they are announced about 24 hours in advance on the Software Underground Slack group (you are in there, right?). We should try to put them out on the @undrsmpldrdio Twitter feed too... 

So, go ahead and watch the very latest episode, recorded last Thursday. We spoke to Tim Hopper, a data scientist in Raleigh, NC, who works at Distil Networks, a cybersecurity firm. It turns out that using machine learning to filter web traffic has some features in common with computational geophysics...

You can subscribe to the show in iTunes or Google Play, or anywhere else good podcasts are served. Grab the RSS Feed from the UndersampledRad.io website.

Of course, we take guest requests. Who would you like to hear us talk to? 

On answering questions

On Tuesday I wrote about asking better questions. One of the easiest ways to ask better questions is to hang back a little. In a lecture, the answer to your question may be imminent. Even if it isn't, some thinking or research will help. It's the same with answering questions. Better to think about the question, and maybe ask clarifying questions, than to jump right in with "Let me explain".

Here's a slightly edited example from Earth Science Stack Exchange

I suppose natural gas underground caverns on Earth have substantial volume and gas is in gaseous form there. I wonder how it would look like inside such cavern (with artificial light of course). Will one see a rocky sky at big distance?

The first answer was rather terse:

What is a good answer?

This answer, addressing the apparent misunderstanding the OP (original poster) has about gas being predominantly found in caverns, was the first thing that occurred to me too. But it's incomplete, and has other problems:

  • It's not very patient, and comes across as rather dismissive. Not very welcoming for this new user.
  • The reference is far from being an appropriate one, and seems to have been chosen randomly.
  • It only addresses sandstone reservoirs, and even then only 'typical' ones.

In my own answer to the question, I tried to give a more complete answer. I tried to write down my principles, which are somewhat aligned with the advice given on the Stack Exchange site:

  1. Assume the OP is smart and interested. They were smart and curious enough to track down a forum and ask a question that you're interested enough in to answer, so give them some credit. 
  2. No bluffing! If you find yourself typing something like, "I don't know a lot about this, but..." then stop writing immediately. Instead, send the question to someone you know that can give a better answer then you.
  3. If possible, answer directly and clearly in the first sentence. I usually write it in bold. This should be the closest you can get to a one-word answer, especially if it was a direct question. 
  4. Illustrate the answer with an example. A picture or a numerical example — if possible with working code in an accessible, open source language — go a long way to helping someone get further. 
  5. Be brief but thorough. Round out your answer with some different angles on the question, especially if there's nuance in your answer. There's no need for an essay, so instead give links and references if the OP wants to know more.
  6. Make connections. If there are people in your community or organization who should be connected, connect them.

It's remarkable how much effort people are willing to put into a great answer. A question about detecting dog paw-prints on a pressure pad, posted to the programming community Stack Overflow, elicited some great answers.

The thread didn't end there. Check out these two answers by Joe Kington, a programmer–geoscientist in Houston:

  • One epic answer with code and animated GIFs, showing how to make a time-series of pawprints.
  • A second answer, with more code, introducing the concept of eigenpaws to improve paw recognition.

A final tip: writing informative answers might be best done on Wikipedia or your corporate wiki. Instead of writing a long response to the post, think about writing it somewhere more accessible, and instead posting a link to your answer. 

What do you think makes a good answer to a question? Have you ever received an answer that went beyond helpful? 

On asking questions

If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is. — Anonymous Yale professor (often wrongly attributed to Einstein)

Asking questions is a core skill for professionals. Asking questions to know, to understand, to probe, to test. Anyone can feel exposed asking questions, because they feel like they should know or understand already. If novices and 'experts' alike have trouble asking questions, if your community or organization does not foster a culture of asking, then there's a problem.

What is a good question?

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question. — Carl Sagan

Asking good questions is the best way to avoid the problem of feeling silly or — worse — being thought silly. Here are some tips from my experience in Q&A forums at work and on the Internet:

  1. Do some research. Go beyond a quick Google search — try Google Scholar, ask one or two colleagues for help, look in the index of a couple of books. If you have time, stew on it for a day or two. Do enough to make sure the answer isn't widely known or trivial to find. Once you've decided to ask a network...
  2. Ask your question in the right forum. You will save yourself a lot of time by going taking the trouble to find the right place — the place where the people most likely to be able to help you are. Avoid the shotgun approach: it's not considered good form to cross-post in multiple related forums.
  3. Make the subject or headline a direct question, with some relevant detail. This is how most people will see your question and decide whether to even read the rest of it. So "Help please" or "Interpretation question" are hopeless. Much better is something like "How do I choose seismic attribute parameters?" or "What does 'replacement velocity' mean?".
  4. Provide some detail, and ideally an image. A bit of background helps. If you have a software or programming problem, just enough information needed to reproduce the problem is critical. Tell people what you've read and where your assumptions are coming from. Tell people what you think is going on.
  5. Manage the question. Make sure early comments or answers seem to get your drift. Edit your question or respond to comments to help people help you. Follow up with new questions if you need clarification, but make a whole new thread if you're moving into new territory. When you have your answer, thank those who helped you and make it clear if and how your problem was solved. If you solved your own problem, post your own answer. Let the community know what happened in the end.

If you really want to cultivate your skills of inquiry, here is some more writing on the subject...

Supply and demand

Knowledge sharing networks like Stack Exchange, or whatever you use at work, often focus too much on answers. Capturing lessons learned, for example. But you can't just push knowledge at people — the supply and demand equation has two sides — there has to be a pull too. The pull comes from questions, and an organization or community that pulls, learns.

Do you ask questions on knowledge networks? Do you have any advice for the curious? 


Don't miss the next post, On answering questions.

Another 52 Things hits the shelves

The new book is out today: 52 Things You Should Know About Palaeontology. Having been up for pre-order in the US, it is now shipping. The book will appear in Amazons globally in the next 24 hours or so, perhaps a bit longer for Canada.

I'm very proud of this volume. It shows that 52 Things has legs, and the quality is as high as ever. Euan Clarkson knows a thing or two about fossils and about books, and here's what he thought of it: 

This is sheer delight for the reader, with a great range of short but fascinating articles; serious science but often funny. Altogether brilliant!

Each purchase benefits The Micropalaeontological Society's Educational Trust, a UK charity, for the furthering of postgraduate education in microfossils. You should probably go and buy it now before it runs out. Go on, I'll wait here...

1000 years of fossil obsession

So what's in the book? There's too much variety to describe. Dinosaurs, plants, foraminifera, arthropods — they're all in there. There's a geographical index, as before, and also a chronostratigraphic one. The geography shows some distinct clustering, that partly reflects the emphasis on the science of applied fossil-gazing: biostratigraphy. 

The book has 48 authors, a new record for these collections. It's an honour to work with each of them — their passion, commitment, and professionalism positively shines from the pages. Geologists and fossil nuts alike will recognize many of the names, though some will, I hope, be new to you. As a group, these scientists represent  1000 years of experience!


Amazingly, and completely by chance, it is one year to the day since we announced 52 Things You Should Know About Geology. Sales of that book benefit The AAPG Foundation, so today I am delighted to be sending a cheque for $1280 to them in Tulsa. Thank you to everyone who bought a copy, and of course to the authors of that book for making it happen.

A fossil book

We're proud to announce the latest book from Agile Libre. Woot!

I can't take a lot of credit for this book... The idea came from 52 Things stalwart Alex Cullum, a biostratigrapher I met at Statoil in Stavanger in my first proper job. A fellow Brit, he has a profound enthusiasm for all things outside, and for writing and publishing. With able help from Allard Martinius, also a Statoil scientist and a 52 Things author from the Geology book, Alex generously undertook the task of inviting dozens of awesome palaeontologists, biostratigraphers, palynologists, and palaeobotanists from all over the world, and keeping in touch as the essays came in. Kara and I took care of the fiddly bits, and now it's all nearly done. It is super-exciting. Just check out some of the titles:

  • A trace fossil primer by Dirk Knaust
  • Bioastronomy by Simon Conway Morris
  • Ichnology and the minor phyla by S George Pemberton
  • A walk through time by Felix Gradstein
  • Can you catch criminals with pollen? by Julia Webb
  • Quantitative palaeontology by Ben Sloan

It's a pretty mouthwatering selection, even for someone like me who mostly thinks about seismic these days. There are another 46 like this. I can't wait to read them, and I've read them twice already.

Help a micropalaeontologist

The words in these books are a gift from the authors — 48 of them in this book! — to the community. We cherish the privilege of reading them before anyone else, and of putting them out into the world. We hope they reach far and have impact, inspiring people and starting conversations. But we want these books to give back to the community in other ways too, so from each sale we are again donating to a charity. This time it's the Educational Trust of The Micropalaeontological Society. I read about this initiative in a great piece for Geoscientist by Haydon Bailey, one of our authors: Micropalaeontology under threat!. They need our community's support and I'm excited about donating to them.

The book is in the late stages of preparation, and will appear in the flesh in about the middle of November. To make sure you get yours as soon as it's ready, you can pre-order it now.

Pre-order now from Amazon.com 
Save almost 25% off the cover price!

It's $14.58 today, but Amazon sets the final price...

A culture of asking questions

When I worked at ConocoPhillips, I was quite involved in their knowledge sharing efforts (and I still am). The most important part of the online component is a set of 100 or so open discussion forums. These are much like the ones you find all over the Internet (indeed, they're a big part of what made the Internet what it is — many of us remember Usenet, now Google Groups). But they're better because they're highly relevant, well moderated, and free of trolls. They are an important part of an 'asking' culture, which is an essential prerequisite for a learning organization

Stack Exchange is awesome

Today, the Q&A site I use most is Stack Overflow. I read something on it almost every day. This is the place to get questions about programming answered fast. It is one of over 100 sites at Stack Exchange, all excellent — readers might especially like the GIS Stack Exchange. These are not your normal forums... Fields medallist Tim Gowers recognizes Math Overflow as an important research tool. The guy has a blog. He is awesome.

What's so great about the Stack Exchange family? A few things:

  • A simple system of up- and down-voting questions and answers that ensures good ones are easy to find.
  • A transparent system of user reputation that reflects engagement and expertise, and is not easy to game. 
  • A well defined path from proposal, to garnering support, to private testing, to public testing, to launch.
  • Like good waiters, the moderators keep a very low profile. I rarely notice them. 
  • There are lots of people there! This always helps.

The new site for earth science

The exciting news is that, two years after being proposed in Area 51, the Earth Science site has reached the minimum commitment, spent a week in beta, and is now open to all. What happens next is up to us — the community of geoscientists that want a well-run, well-populated place to ask and answer scientific questions.

You can sign in instantly with your Google or Facebook credentials. So go and take a look... Then take a deep breath and help someone. 

Purposeful discussion in geoscience

Regular readers will remember the Unsolved Problems Unsession at the GeoConvention in Calgary last May. We think these experiments in collaboration are one possible way to get people more involved in progressing geoscience at conferences, and having something to show for it. We plan to do more — and are here to support you if you'd like to try one in your community.

Last Thursday was the 2014 CSEG Symposium. The organizers asked me for a short video to sum up what happened at the unsession for the crowd, and to help get them in the mood for some discussion. I hope it helped...

Getting better

Conferences seem so crammed with talks these days. No time for good conversation, in or out of the sessions. The only decent discussion I remember recently (apart from the unsession, obvsly) was at EAGE in 2012, when a talk finished early and the space filled with a fascinating discussion between two compressed sensing clever-clogs.

I think there are a few ways to get better at it:

  • Make more time for it, preferably at least 40 minutes.
  • Get people into smaller groups, about 4–12 people is good.
  • Facilitate with some ground rules, provocative questions, and conversation management.
  • Capture what was said, preferably in real time and using the participants' own words.
  • Use lots of methods: drawing, sticky notes, tweets, video, and so on.
  • Reflect the conversation back at the participants, and let them respond.
  • Read up on open space, knowledge café, charrettes, and other methods.
  • Don't shut it down with "I guess we're out of time..." — review or sum up first.

Think about when you have been part of a really good conversation. How it feels, how it flows, and how you remember it for days afterwards, and mention it to others later. I think we can have more of those about our work, and conferences are a great place to help them happen.

Stay tuned for details of the next unsession — again, at the Calgary GeoConvention.

52 Things is out!

The new book is out! You can now order it from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon in Europe, and it will be available soon from Amazon.ca and various other online bookstores.

What's it about? I sent Andrew Miall some chapters at the proof stage; here's what he said:

Geology is all about rocks, and rocks are all about detail and field context, and about actually being out there at that critical outcrop, right THERE, that proves our point. The new book 52 Things You Should Know About Geology is full of practical tips, commentary, and advice from real geologists who have been there and know what the science is all about.

Amazing authors

A massive thank you to my 41 amazing co-authors...

Eight of these people also wrote in 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics; the other 34 are new to this project. Between them, this crowd has over 850 years of experience in geoscience (more remarkably, just two of them account for 100 years!). Half of the authors are primarily active in North America; others are in the UK, Germany, Indonesia, India, the Netherlands, and Norway. Ten are engaged in academia, four of them as students. The diversity is wonderful as far as it goes, but the group is overwhelmingly composed of white men; it's clear we still have work to do there. 

We have the globe mostly covered in the essays themselves too. Regrettably, we have gaping holes over South America and most of Africa. We will endeavour to fix this in future books. This map shows page numbers...

Giving back

Academic publishing is a fairly marginal business, because the volumes are so small. Furthermore, we are committed to offering books at consumer, not academic, prices. The 42 authors have shown remarkable generosity of time and spirit in drafting these essays for the community at large. If you enjoy their work, I'm certain they'd love to hear about it.

In part to recognize their efforts, and to give something back to the community that supports these projects (that's you!), we approached the AAPG Foundation and offered to donate $2 from every sale to the charity. They were thrilled about this — and we look forward to helping them bring geoscience to more young people.

These books are all about sharing — sharing knowledge and sharing stories. These are the things that make our profession the dynamic, sociable science that it is. If you would like to order 10 or more copies for your friends, students, or employees, do get in touch and we will save you some money.

Wiki world of geoscience

This weekend, I noticed that there was no Wikipedia article about Harry Wheeler, one of the founders of theoretical stratigraphy. So I started one. This brings the number of biographies I've started to 3:

  • Karl Zoeppritz — described waves almost perfectly, but died at the age of 26
  • Johannes Walther — started as a biologist, but later preferred rocks
  • Harry Wheeler — if anyone has a Wheeler diagram to share, please add it!

Many biographies of notable geoscientists are still missing (there are hundreds, but here are three): 

  • Larry Sloss — another pioneer of modern stratigraphy
  • Oz Yilmaz — prolific seismic theoretician and practioner
  • Brian Russell — entrepreneur and champion of seismic analysis

It's funny, Wikipedia always seems so good — it has deep and wide content on everything imaginable. I think I must visit it 20 or 30 times a day. But when you look closely, especially at a subject you know a bit about, there are lots of gaps (I wonder if this is one of the reasons people sometimes deride it?). There is a notability requirement for biographies, but for some reason this doesn't seem to apply to athletes or celebrities. 

I was surprised the Wheeler page didn't exist, but once you start reading, there are lots of surprises:

I run a geoscience wiki, but this is intended for highly esoteric topics that probably don't really belong in Wikipedia, e.g. setting parameters for seismic autopickers, or critical reviews of subsurface software (both on my wish list). I am currently working on a wiki for AAPG — is that the place for 'deep' petroleum geoscience? I also spend time on SEG Wiki... With all these wikis, I worry that we risk spreading ourselves too thinly? What do you think?

In the meantime, can you give 10 minutes to improve a geoscience article in Wikipedia? Or perhaps you have a classful of students to unleash on an assignment?

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about an easy way to help improve some geophysics content.