Johnny West & OpenOil: Refining the Extractive Industry

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 28 December 2018

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When we speak to Johnny West about his Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship experience, he’s in a jovial mood. Three weeks previous to our interview, his OpenOil organisation secured a small African government an extra $7 million in negotiations with an oil company after providing it with vital data analysis, training and financial modelling.

His success is not just good news for oil-producing developing nations and their citizens, but also for openness, transparency and the balance of power. In an industry hidden behind a veil of secrecy, smoke and mirrors, Johnny and the OpenOil team use and translate existing information to increase awareness of the real value of natural resources.

Johnny joined the Shuttleworth Foundation community in March, 2014 to work on OpenOil. We caught up with him to see what’s happened since and reflect on his experience in the Fellowship.

OpenOil: A Crude Primer

Ask almost anyone about the high levels of secrecy in the extractive industries and whatever side of the environmental or political divide they reside; there will be recognition. The reality, however, is a little more complicated.

Yes, there is secrecy, and calls for more transparency are growing ever louder from those fighting corruption, averting social crises, and curing political ills. But there is also data. And by using open data techniques and innovation, it’s possible to peel back those opaque layers and establish a more level playing field between governments, people and corporations.

Organisations have run exposés and publish-what-you pay campaigns on the oil industry for decades, and while some have been highly successful in tweaking the narrative, the overall story remains the same. Johnny West believes the conversation needs to move on, and OpenOil is the platform he’s using to shift it.

“Our theory of change is that climate change and other global boundaries absolutely require a global level policy,” he explains. “But we know that the political will to implement that is a long way off.

“There’s no need to labour that point, but there is also a technical aspect to it. Let’s say we magically woke up tomorrow and the political will was there to figure this out, and we suddenly have to stop producing two-thirds of the fossil fuels we currently produce. Which two-thirds are we going to stop?

“It’s a similar kind of deal in climate change, water use, land use, and biodiversity,” he continues. “The latest thinking in biodiversity says maybe half of all land should be left fallow. But that suggests you might have extremely intensive agriculture in the other half.

“These are all complex issues, but they are all very distributed. It needs massive international, commercial and government collaboration. And you can’t do that without an open data framework.”

It’s this framework that forms the basis of Open Oil. Johnny founded the organisation in 2011 on the premise that by building a comprehensive database of the world’s natural resources, you can enable a greater understanding of the actors around them. And by establishing financial models based on searchable, open data, you can create a tool for the public and governments that informs them of everything from revenue flows to market sensitivities around the oil industry.

Johnny’s approach is refreshingly radical. It’s easy to point at the problem areas of the extractive sector and scream ‘foul play’ about environmental damage, the pillaging of national resources, and profits over people. It raises awareness, but in practical terms, it achieves little.

“We’re waiting for that political will to happen, but until then we see an addressable auxiliary solution. If we do our work well enough, we will have saved the world three months or even six months of figuring out the policy implementation details. For five people in a room in Berlin to speed up global policy by that length of time would be awesome.”

From Reuters to the Shuttleworth Foundation

Johnny’s background is in journalism, and he spent two decades working as Middle East correspondent for Reuters, before picking up a role at the United Nations Development Program to help the Iraqi government understand the oil industry.

“In parallel, I’ve been in and around the open world since before it had that label,” he explains. “I left Reuters to start an internet news agency with a couple of colleagues in the mid-90s. It was pre-CMS, pre-blog, pre-everything. So we had to develop the tech skills to build these websites ourselves.

“After doing a year for the UN in and around Iraq, I thought it would be interesting to figure out what could you do if you tried to take open data and apply it to these extractive industries.

“The ideas for OpenOil came about in late-2010. We were full-on with it almost straight away, apart from a blip during the Arab Spring. There was a lot of scrabbling around for money here and there involved before the Shuttleworth Foundation came along, and I remember writing desperate emails to about $8K projects - it was a tough time.”

Johnny first learned about the Foundation from then-Fellow Adam Hyde, who worked with OpenOil within his Book Sprints and FLOSS Manuals projects.

“Adam told me to try Shuttleworth,” says Johnny. “I applied and got to the final round but didn’t get in.”

But Johnny’s Fellowship almost didn’t happen. His project proposal was intriguing beyond question, but we had reservations and serious concerns.

Could anyone really shine a light through the dense fog of disinformation renowned in the extractive industries and make openness a reality rather than rhetoric? And given the unstable nature of the oil-producing countries over the past twenty years or so, could we guarantee his security? We needed convincing.

“I think they were nervous about whether it was doable,” he recalls. “And also worried about security. I remember telling them - and it’s counterintuitive to many people - that I was comfortable working in countries around the Middle East. The risks you would run into by angering governments in that region are not personal, physical risks because they are just too dysfunctional for all of that.

“But the Foundation didn’t really buy that the first time around. So I redid the plan for the next round, asked to re-engage and discuss what was missing, and eventually got the Fellowship.”

Fuelling the Fellowship Years

It was a good decision. Johnny became a Fellow in March 2014 to work on bringing openness to the extractive industries. It was - and is - a bold vision of the world, and a necessary one.

By uncovering the publically available data and presenting it in a way people can quickly consume and understand, it gives context and empowers citizens, governments, and consumers. They can make more informed decisions about managing these critical resources, and it also offers corporations an opportunity to engage with the social potential of Open Oil. The point is not to expose them; instead, to highlight the benefits of playing fair.

But as all our Fellows experience, being amongst the first to solve social issues like these isn’t easy. Over the course of his Fellowship, Johnny faced significant challenges.

“I think we tried to do everything too quickly,” he recalls. “There were a few white elephants - a curation engine we developed and a whole bunch of geospatial stuff. It might be picked up by someone in a few years, but those were two significant ‘learnings.’ I also did some really poor hiring, initially.

“Over time we became much more focussed on financial and commercial analysis. We are now genuinely preoccupied with similar things to people in the City, except we are doing it on behalf of governments rather than companies. Put it this way: I now have three suits and wear them all frequently. It’s our bread and butter now, but it took a few iterations to get there.”

Serendipity - and the open source community - has also played a significant role in getting OpenOil established. After two years of trying to come up with a viable financial analysis structure, Johnny stumbled across an open standard around financial modelling. It gave OpenOil a new level of coherence and was key to bringing advocacy success.

“We just tripped over it one day,” he recalls. “The IMF wasn’t even aware of this standard, and they didn’t have an explicit financial analysis standard. We exposed it to them, and now they have implemented this approach at scale in their modelling work in three countries.

“But it was the fact the project was still alive after two years that allowed me to trip over it. I wouldn’t even call that a learning. It’s just having the ability to survive through the long winter. Going all pop culture, I suppose one way to frame the Shuttleworth Foundation is that it guarantees you get through ‘winter is coming.’”

Personal Reflections

“The Fellowship gave me this extraordinary validation and a sense of optimism that something like this exists in the world,” says Johnny. “I feel there should be a dozen Shuttleworth Foundations.

“Without going all hobbit-like, it is a Fellowship. There is no competition between any fellows because we have such radically different sectors - and we are all such lovely people - so nobody trips over anyone else.

“Yet we have an extraordinary aggregation of values, techniques, skill sets and common problems. It just massively coheres. And then the permissiveness of the environment - the extraordinary trust - is something that creates a much higher quality of interaction between us and the Foundation, and the Fellows with each other.

“But also, although companies are a minority within the Foundation in relation to nonprofits. there is friendliness towards making money to achieve your mission. Don’t forget; we are relatively market-friendly. We have to be.”

Part of the Foundation mission is to encourage all Fellows to aim for sustainability. Three years may seem like a long time, but most Fellows will tell you it goes quickly. And when you are trying to get into a room with ministers and high-ranking officials dealing with an area as sensitive as the oil industry, you won’t succeed unless you look the part.

“I couldn’t get access to governments as an NGO,” explains Johnny. “They wouldn’t even let us in the door. We’re consultants, they are the commissioning client, and they’re the boss - that’s all they understand. We simply couldn’t occupy our niche as an NGO.

“But I’m delighted to be post-NGO where you have to bend over backwards to not make money. There is this ridiculously lazy thinking in the development world which suggests any sense of engaging with commercial mechanisms or incorporating as a company must be in some sense be some kind of betrayal of the mission. It’s nonsense.

“The attitude of the Foundation is different and leads them towards a significant minority of people running businesses, and the nonprofit people are also very intent on hard-nosed attitudes towards raising revenues.

“Now, we run as a business and under 20 percent of the money we earn is from grants, with the rest is from completing contracts.There are a whole bunch of other market-friendly options which we haven’t pursued because they interfere too much with the mission. As a result, we are less disadvantaged than some other Fellows in their ability to seek open, unrestricted funding of a scale and duration - and that allows me to dream big.”

In the Pipeline

Today, Johnny and Open Oil are in a good place. They are making money and well on their way to sustainability while continuing to push openness into a field most people would think was impossible. The path ahead will have its potholes, of course, but the organisation’s influence is growing into significant areas.

They are filling an interesting space, advising everyone from governments to environmental organisations, and achieving significant successes - not least their recent $7 million exploits in Africa.

“That feels very good,” reflects Johnny. “But it’s not nearly as good a result as it needs to be. We think they should be getting twenty million.

“But if you want to judge that regarding value for money, we are profit-making, not profit-maximising. In that one deal alone we have earned around five dollars for the public budget for every penny that has ever been spent on us.

“It might sound crazy, but over the next fifteen years or so I aim to be an ‘other people’s billionaire’ - to raise that money on behalf of others. But, you know…I do think if I’m earning a billion for other people, I wouldn’t mind getting paid some myself.”

Final words?

“The Shuttleworth Foundation community is a genuine professional family,” says Johnny. “The validation and confidence it gave me are sustaining well beyond the end of the formal relationship.

“I once conceived of this idea, if you had one word to describe the Foundation approach - that word would be ‘love.’

“I don’t mean that in a wooly-headed sense and know it seems an inappropriate transposition in this particular domain. Neither do I mean ‘they are all tree huggers.’ But that extreme trust given to you by the Shuttleworth Foundation, effectively, translates into love.”

We’re delighted we gave Johnny the opportunity to move OpenOil forward. While he believes there is a long way to go for his organisation, his work with publically available data and financial modelling has led to significant breakthroughs in our understanding of the extractive industries. He has made a fine Shuttleworth Fellow and has embraced the ethos of sharing knowledge, community and contributing to a better world. And he has shifted our thinking towards a belief that the seemingly unachievable might - possibly - be anything but.

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