Lifting the lid on the oil industry

Open Oil summons the Crowd to create a more transparent oil industry

8 September 2015

Cover photo by Yarin Asanth

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Open Oil is a Berlin-based publishing house, working on transparency around extractive industries. One of its key aims is to make oil contracts more open. The Open Oil team got in touch with Crowdcrafting to help achieve this objective.


The oil industry is run by massive multinational conglomerates, each composed of a dense network of companies, subsidiaries and partners. To understand the industry, it is necessary to untangle the complex contractual web that links these entities and, indeed, this is Open Oil’s mission. It’s a huge challenge but open data can help to navigate the maze.

Open data

The oil industry is heavily regulated. Governments require oil companies to disclose information, including contracts, in public filings. There are huge volumes of data made publicly available in jurisdictions across the world each day. The problem is that there is too much data for any individual or investor to understand. In addition, reporting can conceal more than it reveals. Consolidated accounts can distort information, while documents filed are often missing metadata such as key dates or publisher details. The waters remain murky.

British Petroleum

By way of example, Open Oil set itself the ambitious task of mapping BP’s corporate structure. BP reported revenues of $390 billion in 2013, which is higher than the GDP of South Africa or Columbia. Open Oil found the multinational organisation to be constituted of 1,180 affiliations across 84 jurisdictions, with 12 layers of corporate ownership. The structure is so vast that BP executives got in touch with Open Oil to help them understand the company themselves!


So how does one go about analysing the content of thousands of contracts? You ask the Crowd of course! Open Oil has set up a project in Crowdcrafting to help analyse oil industry contracts. As detailed in our ‘Brain vs Processor: Part 3 – PDF Data Mining’ blog post, it is easy to set up projects in Crowdcrafting where volunteers extract key details from documents. Open Oil asks contributors to identify the full legal name, abbreviation, jurisdiction and OpenCorporates ID in each contract.

Then what?

The ultimate objective is not just to make information available but to make it useable – to present it in a clear and accessible way that is meaningfully transparent. It may then be used to understand beneficial ownership, crack down on tax avoidance, protect public funds, hold politicians to account, monitor lobbyists and fight pollution.


Photo by Pete Markham Has the sun set on secrecy in the oil industry?

Imagine an open oil industry…

Open Oil believes open data can change extractive industries. With the help of the Crowd, data presented in a jumbled, haphazard mess of PDFs may be pulled together into a coherent, useable format that presents a holistic picture of an organisation or industry. This profound new method of open corporate governance empowers people to hold organisations to account and insist on fair play.

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