Geodata Management in Sierra Tim McCormick

BGS works closely with the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID) on a programme called Partnerships for Development (previously known as Great for Partnerships) which supports BGS staff building partnerships with geological organisations in several of DFID’s target countries.  The current focus is on Sierra Leone, Kenya, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic.  In Sierra Leone, BGS works with the National Minerals Agency and the Petroleum Directorate of the Government of Sierra Leone to help them strengthen their capacity in natural resources management and governance.

The Regent landslide, photographed about 2 months after it happened

 “My brother and his entire family were killed. All gone.”  The taxi driver was emotional as he told us about the terrible toll taken by the 15 August 2017 landslide in Regent which swept away hundreds of homes built on the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, killing more than 1,100 people.  The landslides, mudflows and floods that plague the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown and its outlying districts like Regent during the rainy season are yet another trial for the inhabitants of this beautiful but impoverished country with its troubled history.  In the 16th – 18th centuries this was the coast from where enslaved Africans were transported to the New World.  More recent history has seen the Civil War of 1991 – 2002, and the Ebola virus epidemic of 2014 – 2016.

Our work with the Directorate of Geological Survey (DGS), a department of the National Minerals Agency, and the Petroleum Directorate (PD) includes a number of activities designed to help them enhance their geoscience skills and facilities.  We are providing training in geological subjects including sedimentology, structural geology, petrography, field mapping, geochemical sampling, and geohazards, and in data management subjects including geographic information systems (GIS) and databases.  We are also working with the DGS and PD to develop information systems to help them to better store, maintain and share data.

Working with the Technical Services Laboratory staff at the DGS in
New England, Freetown.

One reason why this is important is because greater understanding of the geology of a country, coupled with the ability to organise and share this information with partners, can lead to discovery of previously unknown natural resources for industry or construction.  This in turn can bring in much needed foreign investment from, for example, mining companies, governments, and supra-national organisations like the World Bank and the European Union.

Better understanding of a country’s natural resources also means that the government can monitor and police the exploitation of those resources, ensuring that mining companies comply with local laws, pay licence fees and taxes, work responsibly with respect to local populations and the environment, and provide local employment.  It was illicit and uncontrolled mining and trading of natural resources, gold and so-called ‘conflict diamonds’, which fuelled the civil wars in both Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia.

While our work in Sierra Leone is mainly focussed on natural resources, there are other advantages to be gained from geological knowledge and good geodata.  It can contribute to public health improvements through, for example, provision of clean water, development of better building codes, or understanding the presence and mobility of natural and man-made toxins in the environment.  It might lead to ways to mitigate disasters like the Regent landslide.  Other BGS colleagues are working with the engineering sector to accomplish this.

We are coordinating our work with a World Bank-funded project called EITAP2 (Extractive Industries Technical Assistance Project Phase 2) which is carrying out an airborne geophysical survey of Sierra Leone early in 2019 (in fact, it’s happening as I write).  This will produce a country-wide aeromagnetic data set that will hopefully highlight areas of interest for natural resources.  These will be followed up with targeted ground-based geological mapping and geochemical sampling.

From L-R: Crowds enjoying the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Lumley Beach, Freetown; A view across Freetown.

The DGS wants to be sure it is in a position to handle the data that will be generated by the World Bank project, and exploit it to its greatest potential.  My part in our work is to run training courses and help develop the information systems to do this.  We are utilising ‘open source’ software technologies because the DGS and PD, in common with many government institutions across Africa, cannot rely on continued access to the funds to pay annual licence fees for commercial software.

Initially, we have focused on working with the DGS Technical Services Laboratory to develop a simple computer-based laboratory information management system (LIMS) that stores and organises the documentation associated with each job that the lab handles.  This sort of system is important because it allows the lab to record its activities in detail, and it means that customers, who include mining companies and NGOs, can have confidence in how the lab operates and produces its deliverables.

The next phase is to develop a geochemical/geological samples database ready to store data about the samples that will be collected by the World Bank’s project, and track the analyses carried out on them.

I have been lucky to work in Freetown with several of my BGS colleagues who bring geological, IT, data management, or laboratory expertise to the project: Darren Jones, Jane Robertson, Roman Roth, Anubha Singh, Steve Thorpe and John Wheeler, as well as the staff of the DGS and the PD.  Darren and Kathryn Goodenough manage the project, and a number of other colleagues from across BGS are involved in providing geoscience training activities, both in the classroom and the field.

Tim McCormick is a Geoscience Data Specialist at the BGS. For more information then click here.