Now That's Data Mining

When Robert R. McEwen wanted to buff his gold-mining company's image, he turned to the Net to issue a challenge to geologists: Draw up a plan to locate 6 million ounces of gold at Goldcorp Inc.'s Red Lake mine in northwest Ontario and share $500,000 in prize money--whether the company finds gold or not. "We wanted to do some global brainstorming," says McEwen, Goldcorp's chief executive.

The idea has been a lucky strike. Academics, mining students, and consultants submitted 51 plans with detailed drilling suggestions--for less than what Goldcorp would have had to pay mining experts. That could mean serious savings for a small company such as Goldcorp, which earned $11 million on revenues of $51.7 million in 1999. "This has been a magnet for ideas and people," raves McEwen. More important, it may be a model for the struggling mining industry: Already, two other small mining outfits are crafting their own contests.

The competition has convinced McEwen that the Web can play a bigger role in mining, where little is more critical than accurate data. Now, he's stringing fiber-optic cables throughout his mines so geologists with Palm handhelds can hook into them and relay data to the surface 6,000 feet above for rapid analysis. And he envisions using the Web to form virtual teams of explorers by sending out data and asking geologists for advice.

As for the contest, McEwen won't know if he has hit paydirt until he starts digging. Meanwhile, independent experts will begin picking the winners, who stand to get cash prizes of up to $105,000. McEwen is betting that just as the Net spawned a modern-day gold rush on Wall Street, it may make it easier to find the real thing thousands of feet underground.