What does an oil well look like from space?

This is what a small oil well in the Niger Delta looks like from space. Strange, isn’t it? We can’t see the rig, and in fact the most prominent feature from above is the produced water reservoir. It is a satellite well feeding into this gathering station, known as the “Ogabe Base” – which is run by Total in concession OML 58 which looks like this. The base has dozens of feeder wells and has been going for a long time – here is a Total corporate brochure about it.

So, the broader point is, there may be ways to map the physical infrastructure of extractive industries using publicly available satellite imagery. Mapathons are already working on issues like the emergency response to Hayan in the Philippines, and Open Street Maps have run projects to develop advanced mapping in areas which might not normally get it, such as the shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi.

Now it is time to look at applications in and around extractives governance.

This composite picture was produced by a crowd online at a hackathon in about two hours. It needs cleaning up, and is clearly only the start of a large job if we want to map the whole of the Niger Delta. But it also, in our humble view, proves that it is possible.

Who cares, might be the next question? What would such a physical infrastructure map actually tell us?

Well like a lot of things the answer is, it depends. In this case, we know it can interact already with this data set of oil spills, compiled by the Nigerian government. And this dataset which we found of the country’s oil concession areas – the entire physical space carved up into allocations by contract to various companies. Put all those things together and you can start to build a map which can really show patterns and issues around oil spills in a much more precise and granular way. No one layer can do it by itself – the spill points, the concession areas, or the infrastructure. It is a question of putting them all together in the open data space.

The next thing it can do is to provide a skeleton framework for activists on the ground to fill in, and complete a more comprehensive map of all features in any given concession area. This would be hard to do from scratch, but becomes viable with an initial “sketch from space”. We have a couple of Nigerian colleagues in Lagos and Port Harcourt interested in this right now, some journalists and others a community-level civil society organisation.

They may find other applications – what about putting this layer against a geo-spatial data set of security incidents for example, were one available? That might say a lot about the insecurity and conflict we hear about in the Delta. What about time series which map these industries against local patterns of community development, to acquire new data around issues like prior and informed consent and resettlement? IKV Pax Christi already demonstrated what was possible some years ago when they got hold of satellite images which clearly showed that tens of thousands of people had been systematically moved from the path of the oilfields being created in Tarjath, in what was then Sudan, a piece of research which is still playing out in the Swedish court system in terms of what the oil company, Lundin, knew when around what were clearly large scale human rights abuses.

What about other issues of governance? Corruption, for example? Would any correlations stand out if we mapped a country’s small mining license and production against electoral districts? Local administrative fiefdoms? Let’s find out!

I was going to say “the sky is the limit”, but clearly it isn’t. The sky is the start!

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