Project of the Day: Open Oil

Open Oil is a public domain reference source in textual terms for extractive industries

Johnny West writes that:

“We are working on putting contracts from the world’s oil and mining industries into the commons with the necessary analysis to make them accessible for public debate … We are co-developing a model to factor the effects of carbon pricing on revenue flows in oil producing countries as a way to alert them to the need to diversify their public finances and economic development away from hydrocarbons. OpenOil was founded in late 2011 by Johnny West, and has since evolved into a consultancy, publishing house, training provider, transparency advocate and more. We began with a focus on the Middle East, but have since carried out projects and workshops in Colombia, Uganda, South Sudan and more, with (hopefully) Nigeria and Azerbaijan soon to come.”

Zara Rahman adds that:

“Since our official beginning in September 2011, our way of fulfilling our mandate here at OpenOil has evolved considerably. The main principle is the same; we work on resource curse issues, trying to ensure that citizens of resource rich countries can see the benefits from their natural resources.

However, despite beginning as a purely research based organisation, we appear to have evolved into somewhat of a publishing house, training course provider, and research organisation, with a mixture of projects in these three areas. Crucially, all of the intellectual property that we produce has remained true to our ‘open’ name, and is released freely on the web under the Creative Commons License.

However, telling people I work for an organisation called OpenOil always provokes some interesting, and varied, reactions.


* “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 won’t be in a post-hydrocarbon economy for another 30 years or so, and until then (as much as we would all like to move away from it) oil will be generating huge amounts of money. 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. It’s a good point to say that we should be focusing on renewables now, but in many oil producing countries, it’s the money from oil that will be funding the development of other sources of energy. 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, more 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 (more about this later) – and somebody asked me last week what the aim of that project all was, or what our ideal outcome would be. We calculated that if African governments were able, on average, to increase their take of market value by just one percent, that would be the same as increasing development 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, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, think that this is definitely worth a try.

How else do we address issues of transparency? As I said earlier, we have, it seems, become somewhat of 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, as we have called them. We developed a larger project based on the wikis, based on the idea of using the wiki to create a wider knowledge community around the extractive industries on a country by country basis. As the current working plan goes, we create the structure and 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 with a group of individuals.

Our other main project of late has been on 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, as you can see 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 positive benefits to citizens of resource rich countries.”

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