This hacker for science says there is a quiet revolution happening in subsurface software

Matt Hall is founder of Agile Scientific, a geology and geophysics consulting firm, or what he calls an independent geoscience idea factory, based in Mahone Bay, N.S.

The subsurface software industry may be good at creating comprehensive, data-heavy and generally proprietary software to decipher the complexities of oil and gas deposits deep underground, but it’s not so good at creating cheap, adaptive, open source software that end users can actively work with—and that best matches their needs—according to one geoscientist attempting to change the paradigm.

Matt Hall is founder of Agile Scientific, a geology and geophysics consulting firm, or what he calls an independent geoscience idea factory, based in Mahone Bay, N.S. In addition to seismic and well log interpretation, visualization and analysis, the firm’s other passion is subsurface knowledge sharing—wikis, forums and training, he says.

Hall, who maintains there is a quiet revolution occurring in subsurface science and engineering software, has turned to hackathons as one way to accelerate the transformation and find new solutions to pressing challenges in the industry. He has helped organize hackathons in Calgary, Houston, Denver and most recently in Vienna in May. They are generally co-located, but not officially affiliated with, major geoscience conferences.

Hall, who has a PhD in sedimentology from the University of Manchester, U.K., has worked for Landmark as a volume interpretation specialist, for Statoil as an explorationist and for ConocoPhillips in Calgary as a geophysical adviser, giving him an insider’s knowledge of the industry.

“The incumbent pattern, if you like, is that the fairly big vendors are talking to committees, not really end users, and selling these big expensive software packages,” he says. “The point is that we can, as scientists, get much closer to our work by staying closer to our data, not losing touch with it.

“The thing with tools they create is that, while they are amazing tools—it’s very hard and expensive to build tools like that—they fundamentally are a black box. You are not allowed to see the source code, and I feel like, just as a matter of principle, if we are doing science we should be able to see what the code is doing to our data.”

By sharing knowledge and learnings and using open source tools, Hall believes the revolution will not come from a big software company, but from products that live on the web.

“The revolution, if you like, is very quiet—like a lot of things, in reality it will probably be quiet and slow. It will come from the availability of inexpensive, or even free, open source software tools, and the ease with which a person can pick up the skills needed to wield them. The relatively new languages, like Python and JavaScript, are quite high level languages and fairly easy to learn, and they have very rich libraries for numerics behind them, so it’s very easy to pick them up and start using them on seismic data.”

In a conversation the company hosted on the sidelines of a conference in 2013, it asked what the biggest unsolved problems in subsurface geoscience were. The top three: the need for less secrecy and more sharing; improving seismic resolution; and “acceptance of error—live with it.”

Hackathons

In a quest to move beyond conversation to action, Hall and Agile colleague Evan Bianco launched the first hackathon—events he sees as avenues to creatively overcome limitations of systems and extend their capabilities—with the theme of error and uncertainty. Three more have focused on well logs, resolution and web connectivity. The Vienna hackathon focused on gaming.

Surprisingly, he says, only a few professional developers have attended the events. Many have been beginners at programming who have never developed any kind of application before.

The two-day events usually involve participants competing in small teams to solve a problem, concluding with short demos of their solutions. Among the solutions they have created are tools exploring velocity modelling and depth conversion; a simple way to share images and invite others to interpret them; a magnetotellurics modelling web application; and a new script for modelr.io (a forward modelling web app) that turns back-of-the-napkin sketches into synthetic seismic sections.

“The beauty of these things is that they don’t take a corporate decision to start implementing. A person sitting at their desk can say, ‘I am going to learn python’ and install python because it’s free and start learning it, and within a year be doing really cool things. I think in very short order, without fundamental changes to an organization, you could get back some of that innovative creativity that our industry had a lot more of in the past.”

Hackathons have been used internally and externally for at least a decade by companies, governments and others to move innovation forward and create new products and as a recruitment tool, Hall says. They are about much more than simply writing code, he adds: they offer more intangible opportunities to share knowledge, prototype new ideas and push boundaries.

“A sort of skills bazaar emerges, as people either recruit talent to their teams, or peddle their abilities to others,” he says. Non-programming skills such as geophysical insight, workflow knowledge, mathematics and graphic design can be as important as coding abilities.

“I found that there are people trading skills, people trading ideas, and on some level you could say they are networking—but more meaningful networking. Most people don’t know what to expect when they show up and I would say, without fail, people have had a positive experience. It’s much more than you would typically get at a conference or a course.”

Hall, who offers online open source tutorials, says he is finding more and more people are telling him they are learning to program. As the concept grows, it could lead to a paradigm shift as it has in other sectors.

“The bigger that community gets—the community of what I call hackers, or coder interpreters, who are actually solving their own problems with their own code—the more it has to share; not just code, but they are sharing ideas and building tools for each other. My hope is that there is a sort of exponential take-off in that community of grassroots, home-grown kind of technology, just like there is in other areas like in biomedicine, astrophysics, oceanography. Those communities have built amazing tools for themselves that easily rival what we would normally think of as commercial software tool sets,” says Hall.

“Maybe it’s years off at this point, but still, I am excited to get there. I think that would be an amazing outcome.”

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