Simple is Not Always Better

I was thinking through a project I was working on. It was a project where we had taken some raw seismic field data and processed it in readiness for interpretation. Rather amazingly, the completed dataset was 1/600th of its original size when we were finished. I have experienced this kind of reduction in volume every time I have done this sort of work, but this time it struck me as odd.

Firstly, why should any dataset, after hundreds of hours of work, processing and intellectual input get smaller instead of gaining in size from all of the additional thinking that was put into it? It was kind of like all of my hard work created less instead of more…and, frankly, that was annoying me. It is really the job of an interpreter to look for ways to reduce data to information and knowledge (the trees vs the wood etc.) so datasets getting smaller as we move towards an interpretation is fully expected. I guess what was preying on my mind is that in comparison to the original field data, I seem to create less detailed, less “knowledge-rich” final products – shouldn’t they be richer after I put my brain to it?

My gut was telling me that this was less to do with what really should happen with my data and more to do with historical technology foundation stones, laid many years ago, that today still drive how we handle our data - even if these foundation stones have no place in today’s environment. I decided to dig deeper.

Today field seismic data is generally recorded in SEGD format. SEGD stands for Society of Exploration Geophysics – Format D. The industry started with SEGA then B, C and now we are on SEGD Rev 3 8058 32 bit IEEE demultiplexed (over 20 or so format changes and variations since we started with SEGA), with the last official update being in 2012. So when I start a typical project, I usually start with SEGD. When I am done with my project and the data has been manhandled, processed and all my intellect put into it, I create a format called SEGY. SEGY, however, is not a smaller more refined version of SEGD, in fact it bares almost no resemblance whatsoever to SEGD. SEGD is so much more complex and data rich that it is usually handled only by specialist companies. In comparison, SEGY is simple and handled by almost everyone in the geophysical community - part of the point of the SEGY format was to make it simple and easily shared – and with that simplicity you lose a lot of depth, richness and provenance. This is because the SEGD format is capable of storing more information, more detail and more metadata - more of just about everything really than SEGY.

If you follow the seismic acquisition formats used over time, you can see that they have evolved to allow for the significant advancements in acquisition techniques we have developed. But the final format of SEGY, despite unprecedented advancements in processing technology, is still essentially the same as it was 40 years ago. As we all know, the act of processing data necessitates the need to describe what we did to others to explain the reasoning behind our decision making and the mathematics we applied to the data. But the final format of SEGY has not expanded over time to even allow us to comprehensively document our actions so that this information can at least travel with or be contained within the data itself. On the face of it, SEGD appears to have been keeping pace with technology evolution given the number of changes made to it over time, but what of SEGY?

The SEGY format was created when 3D seismic was not commercially available and techniques like 4D seismic, near field and sea bed acquisition had not yet even been imagined, yet the datasets we create end up wedged into the same format we created when 24 channel 2D seismic was cutting edge.

For me, SEGD is like a high definition motion picture starring our favourite actors and actresses with heaps of special effects, CGI and surround sound, whereas SEGY is like a screen capture of a single frame from the end of the movie and interpreters are expected to use that single frame to determine the plot and final outcome of the movie.

Why would we elect to create our final datasets in a format that has so much less to offer? Well, I think it relates to the following factors:

  1. The fundamental design of the SEGY format has not kept pace with our technological advancements. The original field format specifications in the 1970’s were designed to take in lots of complex detail on mass because in the 1970’s, compute power and RAM were struggling to handle the volumes of data coming in from the recording instruments. A way to receive data on mass and write to recording media as fast as possible, with as much detail as possible, was needed. But this level of detail and complexity had to be pared back for end users of the final data products to create datasets that were a manageable size and compatible with the computer systems and interpretation technology available to users. Hence a massive amount of detail from the acquired data has to be tossed out just to wedge it into the ubiquitous and sharable SEGY format. Maybe this was not such a big deal in the 70’s when we did not have the advanced acquisition and processing technology we have now. But today the format we use for our final products and interpretations still provides the same view of the data it did over 40 years ago despite the incredible technology advancements we have made. What if I wanted to “undo” some of the mathematics applied to the data when it was previously processed to model the data before the application of that change? Why can’t the format itself store what was applied in a more meaningful way, and allow a user to turn it off or make changes to the mathematical formulas to gain a different perspective of the data? While it is nice to get the data to 1/600th of its original size, it is no longer essential to do so given that our capacity to handle large datasets no longer has the same limits it had in the 70’s. Ironically, it seems one of the major limitations in getting more from today’s data is not a lack of technology, but more that we seemingly remain satisfied with using the same 40 year old format to store our data.
  2. The heavy adoption of the formats in the industry has created reluctance to change. The user community adopted the practice of simplification rapidly. Once adopted, SEGY became the norm and changing it was not going to be easy. The SEGY format was originally created in 1975 and was officially updated once in 2002. The update was not at all significant in terms of differences in the data format – more just a small extension to the original format. How could a format written in 1975 still be considered at all appropriate today for complex geophysical datasets? Could SEGY have really been that great to begin with that it does not need to be improved? My belief is that in 1975, it was certainly a great format, but truthfully, the format has not kept pace with our technological advancements. Seismic acquisition is like paying the cost of producing a big budget motion picture on HD DVD and our acquisition formats happily handle that level of detail, but when interpreting the data we seem quite prepared to watch that movie on a 1975 black and white television set. Why have we not taken bold steps to improve this?
  3. The mounds of technology built to use the data we create would need significant changes and possible a more “open source” approach. Once the use of the simple format became the norm, massive amounts of technology were then built to use the data. Desktop analysis, processing and interpretation systems spread and were rapidly adopted. All of these systems are happy to store your detailed project information including the filters you applied, the decisions you made and the mathematics you used, but the SEGY format itself does not allow you to retain that detail in the data itself. But why not? Is it that a massive change to the simple format of SEGY today would create havoc in the software development community? Would this change possibly break our dependence on the need to retain particular processing software and hardware platforms because our data depends on the same system that created it to tell us how our data ended up the way it did?

I have tremendous respect for the Society of Exploration Geophysics, the teams of people that write the formats and the type of energy it takes to write software that handles complex datasets and this in no way is a swipe at any one. But I have to ask – are we keeping pace or is it time for a rethink? I would appreciate any feedback readers can muster on how other formats used in the geophysical industry have evolved.

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Guy Holmes

Guy is a graduate of Geophysics from Macquarie University in Sydney, and has completed a Masters of Business Administration (Technology Management) from Deakin University in Melbourne. 

Guy is a successful leader with a proven track record in the growth of start up and turn around businesses in the IT, medical and information management sectors.

Guy has extensive experience in the oil and gas, minerals, medical, and information management industries in Australia and the Asia Pacific and is a highly regarded entrepreneur.

Guy’s experience includes:

• Sourcing Venture Capital
• Acquisitions and Sales of businesses
• Commercial technology development
• Research and development for internal and external products
• International business development
• Product and service marketing, development, and management
• Multimillion dollar contract negotiations with government and private sectors (International and domestic)
• Development of business and marketing plans, strategy documents , and other executive level documents
• Industry leader in information management, data management, archiving strategies, legacy technology with a particular focus on the management of oil and gas and minerals information and data on a global scale.
• Operational management and refinement to seek maximum profitability
• Grant applications, financing arrangements, and seeking alternative funding

The results that Guy has achieved in his varied roles stand testimony to his abilities to:

• Manage organizational resources to achieve results
• Develop and drive technology solutions to achieve business goals
• Grow businesses that are both start-up and/or stagnant
• Successfully land, negotiate, perform and complete projects both domestically and internationally

Guy has been married for 24 years and has five children. He enjoys playing ice hockey, travel, mountaineering and spending time with his family and reading.