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Introducing OpenOil

- November 28, 2012 in Environment, Energy and Sustainability, External Projects, Featured, Open Data

About OpenOil and transparency

I work for a transparency organisation and small publishing house, called OpenOil. We work on resource curse issues: trying to ensure that citizens of resource-rich countries can reap the benefits of their natural resources. Since our beginning – just 16 months ago – we have run projects on site in Colombia, Iraq, Libya and, as of last Saturday, Uganda. All our work is released under Creative Commons License and is created using open-source software.

Telling people I work for an organisation called OpenOil always provokes some interesting and varied reactions, e.g.:

  • “Has an oil company paid you to come here?”
  • “But it’s time to move away from hydrocarbons, oil has terrible effects on the environment!”
  • “Wow, you must have a lot of work to do, surely improving the way the oil industry is run is a lost battle already”

In answer to the first – no, all of our funding is from the public sector – including the UNDP, the German Agency for International Cooperation and NGOs like Revenue Watch Institute and Internews, amongst others.

Secondly – yes, we know. We take the pragmatic approach that even by best estimates, we will not have a post-hydrocarbon economy for at least another 30 years, and until then oil will be generating huge revenues. This money could (and should) be used for the benefit of the citizens of resource-rich countries: not to fuel wars, or keep dictators in power, but to improve citizens’ quality of life, and ensure a smoother transition to greener energy.

The focus should indeed be on renewables, but in many oil-producing countries, it is the money from oil that will be funding the development of other energy sources. If this money is being wasted or lost in corruption and anti-transparent practices, it only reduces the amount of money that can be invested into better, long-term solutions to providing energy access.

And thirdly – yes, we do have a lot of work to do, but it’s most definitely not a waste of time. Recently, we have been working on oil industry contracts and there have been some questions about the aim of that project and the ideal outcome. We calculated that if African governments were able, on average, to increase their take of their natural resource revenue by just one percent, that would be the same as increasing development aid funds by 20 percent.

The gargantuan size of the oil industry means that even the tiniest increase in transparency and improvement in management could have huge effects on the lives of millions: we and other NGOs and initiatives think this is definitely worth a try.

Addressing issues of transparency: Oil wikis

OpenOil also acts as a publishing house. This happened almost organically – in 2009, I worked with the founder of OpenOil, Johnny West, on a UNDP project creating a wiki on the Iraqi oil industry. It was written using Media Wiki software, following Wikipedia editing guidelines – no original research, more of ‘digital curation’, pulling together information that is out there but is somewhat inaccessible. When OpenOil started in 2011, the idea of creating oil wikis came up again, and together with it, the concept of self-publishing: pulling out pages from the wiki to create hard copy books, or “Oil Almanacs”.

We developed a larger project based on the wikis and the idea of using the wiki to create a wider knowledge community around the extractive industries on a country by country basis. First we create the structure, as well as a few articles, then we run workshops in country for journalists or civil society on how to add to and edit the wiki, as well as a few of the more complex issues in the oil industry. At the end of the project, we hand over ownership of the local language wiki to their institute or organisation, based on the premise that it is easier to maintain if it is housed within a stable organisation than within a group of individuals.

So far, we have developed wikis (see ) for Colombia (also in Spanish), Ghana, Iran, Iraq (also in Arabic), Libya, Niger (also in French), South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria. Work on building a Uganda wiki began just recently, as my colleague Amrit is in Kampala for the next 3 weeks, working with journalists from the Uganda Radio Network. All of the wikis are available on the internet, and we have printed out and distributed books in almost all of the relevant countries (except Iran and Niger so far).

Understanding oil contracts

Another main project has been around understanding oil contracts. As contract transparency is emerging as a norm of best practice, we wanted to provide people with a key tool to help understand complex contracts. The book was produced using the booksprint method, facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of, which involved bringing together a group of 10 experts on the topic of oil contracts, and writing the book from start to finish in just one week. It has now been released under Creative Commons, and is free for download from our site.

We are now looking for ways to take this generic book forward, including running low-cost training courses, partnering with local organisations to produce country-specific versions, and expanding the scope of the book to include mining contracts. Next week, it will be distributed in Beirut to members of the Yemeni and Iraqi Publish What You Pay coalitions, as part of a workshop session on understanding contracts.

Other publishing ventures include a guide on publicly-available oil data, entitled Exploring Oil Data – A Reporter’s Handbook, which includes summaries of good blogs, Twitter feeds, consultancies and think tanks producing free materials, and a glossary of oil terms, also available now for download.

Ongoing projects include looking into the use of the flat rate dividend as a way of distributing oil wealth to citizens and getting rid of anti-poor fuel subsidies, as well as research papers on the Libyan oil industry. Through all of these efforts, we hope that combining an ‘open’ way of thinking to the secretive oil industry can have a positive effect on management of the industry, with knock on benefits to citizens of resource rich-countries.

To find out more about OpenOil, please go to or email zara.rahman(at)