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GIS Helps Mining Company Turn Enterprise Data Sharing into Solid Gold

"Our technicians, geologists and consultants, located on three continents, can now simply log into their ArcGIS Online accounts and immediately locate all pertinent exploration data for their projects."
- Fernando Lopez, Manager, Data and GIS, Alamos Gold 

Finding gold is difficult. Finding vast, industrial-scale quantities of gold is beyond difficult; it’s a complicated, data-driven process that heavily depends on extensive fieldwork, expert analysis and interdisciplinary collaboration. Information is the key to success.

Last year, Alamos Gold mined 380,000 ounces of gold. By any reasonable measure, that qualifies as success.

Alamos was formed in 2003 and began commercial gold production at its first mine in Sonora, Mexico just three years later. Since then, the company has quickly grown into an intermediate gold producer with three operating mines – one in Ontario and two in Mexico – plus a number of exploration sites and development projects in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Turkey.

Ongoing exploration is essential to the long-term survival of this Toronto-based company because its gold mines have an expected lifespan of just 7–10 years. Alamos’ Exploration department deploys teams of geoscientists to discover new mine sites and extend the life of existing mines by locating new gold reserves nearby.

Three groups in particular generate most of the company’s critical data:                             

  1. Field geologists, who collect and record subsurface drilling data (core observations and measurements).
  2. Surface mapping teams, who collect surface geological data to generate interpretative geology maps.
  3. External groups, including analytical laboratories, satellite image services and geophysics companies, among others.

These groups produce very large datasets that will almost inevitably be needed by other team members. With offices and sites scattered around the world, some in remote areas, Alamos has had more than its fair share of data availability challenges.

“Whenever someone wanted a dataset, they had to contact the geologist who created it,” explained Fernando Lopez, manager of data and GIS at Alamos Gold. “If the file was very large or the geologist was in a remote location, the data would have to be burned onto a DVD and driven to the nearest company office. It was very inefficient—especially if the wrong data got sent.”

Since staff members typically shared information by sending copied files, duplication became an issue. Everyone had their own version of a dataset, and they never really knew if it was up to date. Duplication occasionally played havoc with monthly reporting, as geoscientists delivered different reports based on the ’same’ data.

“A big part of the problem was that no one was in charge of the information,” concluded Lopez. “Our data was stored all over the place in dozens of information silos.”

An Alamos Gold drilling team collects core samples for laboratory analysis.

Global Data Management Program

When Lopez joined Alamos in 2014, he was asked to reengineer how the exploration department manages its data. The global data management program that he eventually proposed was built around an enterprise GIS.

“About 80% of information that mining companies have is tied to location, yet most of them are still managing their data with spreadsheets,” said Lopez. “Convincing some teams that information is meant to be shared is sometimes more difficult than the program implementation itself.”

Lopez formed the Geo-Information Group, a three-person team of specialists in GIS, SQL databases and document management to help him with the implementation. The group was tasked with building up corporate GIS capabilities, as well as supporting and standardizing data management processes.

Since Alamos’ geoscientists were already using Esri technology, it made sense for Lopez and his group to choose ArcGIS Server as the backbone of the new enterprise GIS system. The group started by visiting the most active projects and reviewing every data process, from planning to collection and interpretation.

“This allowed us to design a standard solution that covered 80% of all information needs for all sites,” said Lopez.

This solution, which was first implemented in Mexico, is repeatedly rolled out at each new project.

Now, whenever a geoscientist creates a dataset, it undergoes a quality control check before being stored in a central repository, which is the single source of data for the project. Some of these quality control checks are time-consuming. Also, spotty Internet connectivity in some parts of the world makes some datasets not rapidly available. Lopez’s goal is to eventually bring that time down to under 24 hours with the help of automated quality control tools. To date, the Geo-Information Group has processed 4 terabytes of historic data, up to half of which was duplicate information.

Of course, the group’s mandate isn’t simply to collect data and standardize data management practices, but to share information with everyone in the department. Thanks to ArcGIS Online, Alamos’ geoscientists are now able to view all of the different types of exploration data together in one place.

Using ArcGIS Online, exploration data for Alamos’ mining sites can be shared easily across the organization.

“What we like about ArcGIS is that it provides a spatial context for our data,” commented Lopez. “It’s not just a table showing a bunch of numbers, it’s a map that you can click on for information. We can always pull up the table if we need to, but the geographical context is what really makes people understand where we’re coming from.”

Lopez expects the company’s initial ArcGIS Online implementation to be completed by the end of 2016.

Sharing is Golden

Alamos’ recent discovery of 215,000 additional ounces of gold at its Mulatos Mine in Mexico prompted the company to increase its exploration budget by 60%. Lopez believes his department’s new focus on data sharing contributed to this success, and will play a key role in future discoveries.

“Our technicians, geologists and consultants, located on three continents, can now simply log into their ArcGIS Online accounts and immediately locate all pertinent exploration data for their projects,” he said. “Information is not only readily available, but it’s also known to be reliable because it comes from a single, quality-controlled source.”

Alamos’ centralized database and standard set of processes has immensely improved inter-regional collaboration, bringing a scattered group of geoscientists together into an online community. People no longer have to work in the same building to share meaningful insights and make substantial contributions to each other’s projects. When someone has to relocate to a different Alamos site, the corporate systems provide continuity, minimizing the learning curve.

Information sharing has even begun to cross departmental lines, as Lopez and his group consult with the Community Relations and Environmental departments in Mexico to see how they can leverage ArcGIS to improve their own operations.

What Comes Next?

Lopez anticipates that Alamos will need to increase its number of ArcGIS Online subscriptions as his group continues to roll out new GIS-based tools and features. They’re currently developing a cloud-based remote sensing library that will give field geologists instant, self-serve access to the geophysical data they need to make informed decisions. This innovation should have a major impact because geologists will no longer have to ask the Geo-Information Group to manually send them massive data files.

In the near future, Lopez plans to completely replace the department’s local geodatabases with ArcGIS Online. He also expects to begin harnessing the sophisticated spatial analysis and custom map-making tools provided by ArcGIS Pro. Other items on his GIS ‘to-do’ list include integrated business intelligence, custom dashboards and mobile devices.