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Sharing Oil Information in Tunisia: Open Data is Much More About People Than Technology

I recently had the privilege, as a consultant for the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), to work with Tunisian government officials to prepare their open data portal focused on the country's oil and gas industry. The portal is currently slated to go live next month.

I learned three key lessons during my short trip to Tunis:

  • Government can and in fact must be a key partner in solutions. It’s easy in governance and transparency work to slip into a frame of mind where government is always part of the problem, but the Tunisian Ministry of Mines and Energy’s efforts to establish an online open data portal are admirable and deserving of support
  • Open data work is only very partially about technical IT issues. The bigger issues are around people: who are you trying to reach and to what effect?
  • Open data, and transparency more generally, are long-term plays—even though they can often appear to be dwarfed by the much larger ebb and flow of public opinion, commercial disputes and political in-fighting.

The context for my engagement in Tunis is that Tunisia signed up to the Open Government Partnership in 2013 and pledged to create an open data portal for the oil industry. Although Tunisia’s industry is not large in financial terms – it produces only about 60,000 barrels a day – it is a key industry within the country and has consistently had a high public profile.

This actually reached fever pitch in late May, just before my visit, when a Twitter campaign called “وينوالبترول" (“Where is our oil?”) went viral. According to one local analyst, the campaign reached social networks of around three million – more than a quarter of the country’s population. Campaigners who in Tunisia have remained active continuously since the Arab Spring of 2011 claimed, among other things, that the country must have enormous undeclared oil reserves for the simple reason it sits between two OPEC giants, Libya and Algeria.

In response, Zakaria Hamad, Minister of Energy, Mines and Industry, announced in early June that a portal would be up by the end of the month, as against an original timeline of mid-2016. Suddenly the ministry, led by undersecretary Kais Mejri, was under pressure. (Sadly, this as many other parts of public life in Tunisia may now be relegated to the margins as a result of the most recent terrorist attacks in Sousse, and the state of emergency which they have triggered).

The technical team had installed and configured a version of CKAN, an open data platform put together by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), but were worried about the system standing up to what could be a barrage of interest following the social media campaign. They had a string of intricate technical queries involving compatibility of different versions of the core software with various plug-ins and how to optimize performance and security. We did the best we could, passing these requests on directly to the OKF developer team in London via some interesting multilingual Skype calls.

The bigger issues were: what policy decisions was the government taking about which data to publish and not, which government agencies held the data they wanted, and above all – what would it be reasonable to anticipate as outcomes following the launch?

The portal looked good – with over 50 datasets including field-by-field production figures, and a block allocation cadastre complete with geospatial coordinates. But published contracts—a key part of extractives transparency—were notably missing. The discussion of why this ws the case proved to be another illustration of the devil being in the detail in all transparency debates. The full text of the contracts was in any case redundant, some officials confidently claimed, because the hydrocarbons regulations of 1999 defined most of the key contractual terms and the portal’s production block summaries—giving production and equity shares among the companies—would provide the information needed for a clear view. But that isn’t so: most of Tunisia’s actual production is governed by contracts which pre-date the code and aren’t governed by it, leaving a system-level view as elusive as ever.

As in most states, responsibility for gathering information is spread across many entities. As well as the ministry of mines, there is the state oil company ETAP which holds the contracts, the finance ministry which collects revenues, and many other agencies. The industry ministry, taking the lead, has gathered in many of the data sets but there is clearly an ongoing and considerable debate within the Tunisian government, which is not very well resourced, about what data to release. There is also plenty of work maintaining the portal and extension that could easily fall between the cracks between the different agencies involved.

And experience with open government portals in more-developed countries suggest uptak is slowat best. The UK, for example, still has modest traffic across its portal after five years, as does Ghana, which is considered a model in the African context. And both of these portals contain much more data than Tunisia’s. Most of the most-downloaded data sets on these sites also cover areas of public life which are geospatially distributed, such as traffic accidents or local availability of health services, and of direct decision-making concern to the average citizen. Tunisia is starting from a more modest position: only one economic sector, a few dozen data sets, and in a sector with which most citizens do not interact directly—though civil society organizations are pushing to change that.

Johnny West is the founder of OpenOil.