This article first appeared on Energy First.

For many in the energy sector, it’s not just potential energy reserves which remain untapped, but also data reserves.

Highlighting that belief, Stephen Ashley of the Oil and Gas Technology Centre recently asserted that companies in the oil and gas sector stand to make significant savings if they can ‘sort out’ their relationship with big data.

Addressing delegates at Aberdeen’s ENGenious conference, Ahmed Hashmi of BP also warned that ‘fixed mind-sets’ are holding the industry back.

So, what are Stephen, Ahmed and others getting at – and is the oil and gas sector really behind on the data revolution?

The argument goes that the industry is currently sat on a wealth of data that isn’t being utilised as best it could. Data gathered in the process of exploration, well development and production for example, produce huge volumes of data. And once a well is established, the monitoring of equipment, as well as oil and gas flow rates and pressures, produces important data about the structures and layers of the Earth’s surface – data which could be harnessed to guide further, smarter exploration.

As the technologies underpinning these processes grow more sophisticated, the data set will only grow larger so, could oil and gas be on the verge of its own big data moment?

This is an important question for those aiming to lead the oil and gas industry into the high-tech times we live in. A cursory glance at other industries reveals the impact that data, and data-driven innovations, are having. Whether it’s digital first businesses that gather huge volumes of data on consumer behaviour, or healthcare platforms and services which can monitor health conditions and lifestyles in near real-time to predict and prevent illness, data is an increasingly powerful, and valuable, tool.

Meeting the challenge of big data is about more than just analytics however, it also presents a unique set of intellectual property (IP) challenges. When data becomes incredibly powerful – imagine for example a data-driven exploration model that outperforms the competition when it comes to scouting for new reserves of gas and oil – protecting that value with IP is vital.

Whereas those in the oil and gas sector will no doubt be familiar with protecting innovation through patents and design rights, these forms of IP are often inappropriate when it comes to protecting digital technology. Computer code for example would more likely be something subject to copyright – like a book or music – and it can be difficult to prove the ‘uniqueness’ of code and attain protection.

While complexities remain however, patenting computer-implemented inventions is no longer considered new or controversial, and these innovations are increasingly central to any IP portfolio. And where vagaries do exist, the legal system is striving to catch up. Later this Autumn will see the European Patent Office (EPO) issue new, wide-reaching guidelines around the protecting of AI software for example, ensuring the law is well placed to deal with a technology which will reshape economies in coming decades.

As data becomes ever more prevalent, the oil and gas sector, like all others, will embrace these new technologies and the opportunities they present. Getting the IP right, and protecting hard-won digital innovation, will be key to future success.