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Case Study: Allowing Geological Passion to be Shared and Interpreted Online—University of Leeds Virtual Seismic Atlas

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When a group of university researchers decided to share their amassed geological knowledge online with free access to all interested, they faced a unique challenge. This knowledge was based on seismic images, huge pictures of the Earth’s crust created using special survey equipment, together with geological interpretation overlain on top. Even if you are an expert, it’s sometime hard to know what these images are showing – could a particular feature be a submarine fault or part of an ancient submarine canyon? How could researchers address these problems – and share their thoughts on the different interpretations?
Two geologists at the Universities of Aberdeen and Leeds, Professors Rob Butler and Bill McCaffrey decided to find a solution. The result is the Virtual Seismic Atlas (VSA) – a web site (www.seismicatlas.org) that allows geologists, be they academic scholars, research groups, students or commercial entities around the globe a chance to observe two and three-dimensional images, and to contribute their own interpretations in a collaborative manner to both grow and refine the collection.
Ultimately, this will make for better understanding of subsurface geology in a field where data is typically expensive to acquire and process. In addition, collaboration among a worldwide community of users will feed a geological passion that provides a better understanding of Earth’s surface processes.
“There were several motivations in undertaking the project,” says Butler. “Prior to the development of this image database, researchers looking for information online would go to Google Images, enter a geological term, and often enough wind up with logos for research groups. Or, worse, they would find an image saying, ‘This is not an example.’ Unless you’re an expert, you wouldn’t know if you were getting garbage for results.”
The VSA team aimed to make the image hunt easier. “We want to show spectacular subsurface images and tag them in a way that people can actually find them. So if you want to find examples of a type of particular oil reservoir, you can locate those images with few distractions along the way.”
In 2004, when Butler and McCaffrey first began contemplating the undertaking, they happened to be doing some collaborative research with BHP Billiton. Impressed by the system Blue Fish had developed for BHP Billiton, they began working with Blue Fish to develop a similar system. Once again, the solution called for the use of the Documentum Embedded Content Server and Endeca’s Guided Navigation solution.
“Leveraging a past solution for the VSA project was helpful,” says James Brewer, Information Access Practice Manager for Blue Fish. “We were able to meet goals faster and save the Virtual Seismic Atlas project money.”
“What we liked about the system was that it helps you discover material you might not be aware existed,” says Butler. “This serendipitous approach is something I value highly. It’s a superb way to find new information,” says Butler, who likens the process to days when, browsing through hard copy journals, he would stumble upon a helpful article he hadn’t initially been seeking.
“As users check out these images, they can post their thoughts on what they think they see and why,” says Brewer. “That feedback will help future users with their research. This is a social network for geologists.”
In addition, Butler hopes the VSA site will become a publishing environment for do-it-yourselfers interested in uploading and tagging their own images. “We want to become an online community like YouTube,” he says. “The key goal is that the content will be free and available without restriction.”
Inherent to success is appealing to researchers who, in the past, have been fond of hoarding their findings. Butler wants to break through that and knows to do so he must develop an irresistible, dynamic site.
“Working with Blue Fish has been very creative and interesting,” says Butler. “The neat thing is that the Blue Fish team allows us to develop crazy ideas. That’s important because we’re pushing into areas that are new.”

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