Abstract There is growing consensus that a combination of laissez-faire policies, ad hoc regulation and debilitating support services has perpetuated socio-economic and environmental deterioration in the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) industry. However, a lack of anthropological and geological information on ASM prevents many governments both from improving the policy environment of the industry, and from providing more robust extension services to its operators. This article aims to examine more precisely how a deficiency of baseline census and geological data has inhibited industry formalization and undermined many of the measures implemented to address pressing problems at ASM sites. Specifically, it is argued that insufficient knowledge of artisanal mining populations — including their demographic structure — and of areas suitable for ASM activities affects the ability of a government to regularize, as well as to improve, the organization of this largely informal sector of industry. Case studies of Ghana and Zimbabwe are used to illustrate how the undertaking of low-budget projects in areas of geological prospecting and population analysis could improve the efficiency of ASM assistance.