Strategically locking up land is an art form oil and gas companies have focused on for nearly 100 years. But the vanguard of the shale revolution—and the data and intelligence the industry has—means today’s landmen are competing over less and less available acreage, making it even more important to streamline the land acquisition process, secure the right leases and make complex decisions quickly.

Although the competition is fierce, opportunities to adopt the next generation of technology to secure a competitive advantage are there for the taking. The average landman might spend 80% of their time on research and only 20% on higher value activities such as analysis and negotiations. Land professionals who leverage the latest and greatest innovations flip that ratio and spend a majority of their time being strategic to outpace their competition.

There are five distinct technology breakthroughs that are clearly transforming how landmen conduct title research, find open acreage and evaluate leasing opportunities so they can beat their competition in the modern land grab era.

Work smarter, not harder

The potential value that companies can derive from Big Data is old news, but realizing that value still eludes many organizations. The volume, variety and velocity of oil and gas data have required land departments to invest a huge amount of resources into simply managing all that information. In other words, managing the data is often more important than the data alone. In addition, the complexity of integrating these disparate datasets has proven difficult for many companies to overcome, leading to disjointed workflows and inefficiencies.

All this has led many land departments to seek expert guidance on the analysis of making Big Data into tangible insights, and many look to outside resources as technology partners for this important work. The integration of leasing data with rigs, permits, production, engineering and geology data into a single platform adds context to land research that has never been available at this level. With a holistic view into potential assets, landmen are now able to screen deals faster and prioritize the most promising prospects.

Map-based title research

Although maps are an indispensable tool for land professionals, running title on an area of land continues to be an exercise that requires hours of chaining title instruments using grantor/grantee relationships. By using the various tract descriptions in an instrument, and then tying them to the corresponding abstract/section, land professionals can bring title research into a new paradigm, one that will allow landmen to build a custom area of interest on a map and see all the associated instruments for that area. An added benefit of taking the real property records under research and integrating them into a data-rich, map-based platform is that landmen are now able to recreate the oil and gas environment during the life of the instrument under their review. The speed and accuracy intrinsic in this approach will condense weeks of research into hours.

Optical character recognition

Through the advancement in optical character recognition technology, users are able to decipher a text layer from a PDF image of an instrument with a high degree of accuracy. In some cases, it is possible to reconstruct severely damaged records, unreadable to the human eye. Artificial intelligence (AI) can be leveraged by building regular expressions to identify key words and phrases that can help decipher the various clauses contained within a lease. As more users interact with these datasets and make corrections and additions, machine learning is activated to help the process become more accurate and expand its understanding of the lease document, the clauses and how other datasets impact them.

Leave no tract unturned

Finding open acreage is not always as simple as finding a vacant 2-D section of land when a user introduces the complexities of Pugh clauses and depth restrictions. Traditional research can easily leave opportunities on the table as the user looks over prospects that seem unavailable when they simply are not available at certain depths. The solution professionals are turning to is 3-D subsurface queries. This approach allows filtering through the complexities of deep rights in stacked plays faster and makes it less likely to overlook valuable assets.

Integrated platforms

At present day, the workflow for every land department is highly fragmented as they are spread across a variety of platforms coupled together by loosely integrated outputs. This has resulted not only in the growing frustration of the team, but in the number of personnel required to move the data from one platform to the next. With each dataset that can be integrated into one unified platform, the amount of frustration and wasted resources is diminished. More and more land departments are looking to implement complete end-to-end solutions within one unified integrated platform to improve their capabilities and reduce resource drain.

Finally, as a new generation of landmen are ushered in, there is no doubt they will embrace technology, data and AI to more efficiently do their jobs. Why? Because they will have to. It is not as if expectations will be lowered, and, in reality, they’ll have to produce more with less manpower.

Two years ago baby boomers accounted for 19% of the oil and gas workforce, and that figure is expected to plunge to 7% by 2025, according to an Accenture Strategy analysis. That could mean a shortage of at least 10,000 petrotechnical professionals—possibly as many as 40,000—in eight years. All signs are pointing to a changing of the guard for employees of oil and gas. To think they will rely on paper maps and in-person courthouse searches would be a catastrophic assumption to make.

How land departments prepare for this shift matters, and one clear solution is through embracing data and AI to ensure companies are outmaneuvering the competition.