Our Port Harcourt office, with its sister team in London, has been working in the Niger Delta for the past 10 years making sense of and dealing with the social and environmental fallout from 60 years of oil extraction and associated pollution.
This article charts SDN’s journey from mapping social and environmental crisis in the Niger Delta through citizen journalism to providing the Nigerian government with digital tools to aid the monitoring and prevention of oil spills.
The early days of crisis mapping in SDN – USHAHIDI in the Niger Delta
During early 2010 SDN launched its Niger Delta Watch website to map and track a number of environmental, social and human rights issues in the Niger Delta.
Niger Delta Watch was a deployment of the USHAHIDI platform, an online crisis-mapping system that had been developed in Africa to help civil society and relief agencies deal quickly with crises such as conflict, natural disasters and health emergencies.
USHAHIDI’s innovative tool was designed to merge the prevalence of mobile phones in developing countries with online GIS mapping. With USHAHIDI, information is crowd-sourced via mobile phones from those at the front-line of the emergency at hand. This crowd-sourced information is then located and placed on an online map to be used by central coordinating hubs who quickly build up a detailed picture of events on the ground and can get resources where they were needed fast.
During its early years USHAHIDI proved itself again and again and was downloaded and used hundreds of times. It was used to monitor the violence surrounding the Kenyan elections of 2009, to help relief agencies deal with the Haiti earthquake, to monitor low-intensity violence in Nepal and to assist in the distribution of medicines in rural South Africa. USHAHIDI proved there was a huge demand for quick-deployment Civil Society communications tools for crisis-management and for crowd-sourced reporting and are still the leaders in this field.
We used USHAHIDI (in the form of Niger Delta Watch) to publish mainstream news and to help Civil Society organisations in the Niger Delta to tell their ongoing story of oil spills, environmental calamity, human rights abuses and corrupt officialdom to the world.
The Niger Delta Watch project taught SDN many things but most of all it taught us, when covering low-intensity emergencies over longer time periods, that the human networks on the ground are the most vital piece of the puzzle.
But it wasn’t until the 2011 elections that Niger Delta Watch really came into its own when Chris Newsom and the SDN team in Port Harcourt set up an election monitoring hub. They trained and equipped scores of citizen election monitors to send in reports on election day. The result was hundreds of reports sent in from dispersed teams of election monitors.
The 2011 election monitoring was a success for SDN as it rallied the population around an immediate and pressing cause, but what of the longer term issues such as the oil spills that have plagued the Niger Delta for so long? We found that sustaining long term interest and engagement in low-intensity crisis issues was far more difficult.
The Niger Delta Watch project taught SDN many things but most of all it taught us, when covering low-intensity emergencies over longer time periods, that the human networks on the ground are the most vital piece of the puzzle. It taught us that without a sustained effort to encourage, train and facilitate people to submit reports that these ongoing initiatives will fall by the wayside. The most important thing it taught us was that technology without the motivated human network is never going to really get off the ground.
Some interesting questions were also raised on these longer-term, low-intensity crises: What is the value to affected communities of consistently complaining about an issue if nothing ever seems to change? How can local populations be encouraged and rewarded for their information and made more likely to contribute reports? For a local, what does ‘doing something’ about long-standing and insurmountable issues like repeated devastating oil spills look like in a world of instant, responsive, mobile-friendly web tools?
SDN has been working with local citizen groups who are working on their own reporting and mapping: Oil Spill Witness, Environmental Rights Action and GASIN’s Gas Monitoring System.
It is these home-grown initiatives that need to be supported to carry out monitoring and reporting work within the local context. When doing this it is vital to incorporate locally appropriate and meaningful recognition/feedback/reward mechanisms that will motivate citizen reporters for the long term.
We realised that external interventions imposed from well meaning techies from abroad are just not going to hit the mark on their own. We also realised that constantly reinforcing the message that there is a serious problem does not help come up with a constructive solution.
Oilspillmonitor.ng – SDN’s work with the Nigerian Government oil spill regulators
In response to this SDN embarked on a two year project working with the Nigerian Government Regulator NOSDRA (National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency) on improving their capacity to monitor and track the oil spills in the region and gain strategic insight from the data they had been gathering since 2007.
The result is the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor which has been live since January 2014. The system helps to answer questions like: How many spills are caused by sabotage? Which companies are not engaged with the regulator? How much oil is spilled each year? Where are the oil theft hot spots? Where is illegal refining occurring?
The Oil Spill Monitor has been developed (thanks to DFID and Dutch Government funding) with programming expertise from Alberto González Palomo (Sentido-labs.com), a software engineer with an artificial intelligence and computer graphics background and with the careful guidance and project management of SDN’s Rory Hodgson.
A final training of 18 NOSDRA staff was carried out in May 2014 after two years of careful needs assessment, specification development, user feedback and training sessions plus hours of delicate political engagement.
Thanks to a strong partnership plus the SDN team’s perseverance and attention to detail, NOSDRA is now wholly responsible for the ongoing maintenance and management of the data in the system, a system they designed based on their needs. Multiple NOSDRA staff from each of its 6 regional offices update the oil spill data in the system daily using information gathered from the paper forms that are filled in (by law) when an oil spill occurs. When submitted to the central server this data is then checked by their head office in Abuja and confirmed. They do this using an intuitive, powerful and responsive interface which also provides the regulator, and the general public, contextualized GIS baselayers like soil types, populations and other geo-political and environmental information.
But if the data in the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor tells many stories then it does not tell many more …
NOSDRA relies on the voluntary engagement and support of oil companies in Nigeria to provide them with logistics, data, quantity estimates and even soil and water sample results. This is not ideal for an independent Government regulator and these companies are not always as helpful as they might be. Coupled with this there are many many logistical, security and operational issues that can make NOSDRA’s job very difficult, not least to mention rampant oil theft and insecurity in the Niger Delta region.
The other story not told by the official data is the human-impact, the poisoned waters, the dead fish, the local demand for illegally refined fuel, the problems in the process of collecting spill data, the implication of military and government elements in oil theft protection rackets and the wholesale theft of entire tankers of fuel oil. It doesn’t tell the story that oil company contractors, paid to fix pipes and clean up oil spills, also break pipes and steal oil by night.
The details of these stories are vitally important to understanding the issues faced by all parties and how to address them. If troops were paid more would they resort to extortion and protection rackets? If communities had clean power, would they buy locally refined fuels? If people could still fish and farm in a subsistence way, would they need illegally refined fuels for generators to run power-hungry businesses? If government staff were paid properly and on-time, would they be more robust in their reporting of oil spills and take their roles more seriously?
It is these stories that Civil Society must tell, and why we need crowd-sourced community perspectives and citizen journalism to counter and contextualise the official line. At the same time we need some level of trusted empirical data and associated regulatory powers and systems. Only by working together can we solve these issues in a holistic fashion and, as SDN has found, the devil is in the minor details.
Even if the data we gather officially or from crowd-sourcing might not paint a perfect picture, together it forms a more useful understanding of the situation and the many factors that continue to drive this environmental, human and financial disaster.
Oil companies themselves are slowly opening up their data on oil spills too, but in Nigeria they have a long way to go to comply with existing government regulation but moves are being made in the right direction. Shell publishes its Joint Investigative Visit reports on its website and ENI/AGIP’s own shareholders have told the company to do the same in the face of public corruption allegations. Rather than publishing their own oil spill records on a separate websites (or not publishing them at all) perhaps the oil companies should consider working much more closely with the environmental regulators of Nigeria and civil society groups on the issue of oil spills to find holistic approaches to the myriad of issues and incentives that feed this ongoing catastrophe.
In the mean time SDN will continue to work towards improving compensation, regulation, engaging oil companies, strengthening communities, addressing oil theft, highlighting corruption and improving energy security in the Niger Delta.
Moving towards crisis prevention in emerging extractive economies…
With oil having recently been found in other African nations and with the global rush on African natural resources, SDN would like to use its extensive experience of the complex landscape of the Nigerian resource curse to move towards using open-government data, open-company data and crowd-sourced citizen data as a potential means to avoid this travesty from happening elsewhere.
We believe that by intervening early in emerging extractive economies and working together with technical partners, communities on the ground, companies, and governments to share best practice and promote understanding that maybe, just maybe, the worst aspects of resource curse, as seen in the Niger Delta, could be avoided.