Oil data's disruptive hashtag
If you use Twitter and you're in the energy business, you'll know #OOTT. In his first column for Petroleum Economist, its co-founder tells us how the handle came about
It was a Wednesday afternoon in December 2015 and oil prices were dropping heavily. The reason? Something called the "EIA report". WorldEconomicCalendar.com helped me out, and as I googled further, the onion's layers began to peel off. I began reading entire Wikipedia articles, watching YouTube videos about anything and everything related to oil. Traditional extraction, trading, shipping, storage, pipelines, fracking - I soaked it all in.
I wasn't a total novice. Oil has always fascinated me - as a market, a commodity, a reason for war. I was born in Kuwait and lived in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I watched what the booms and busts did to the Arabian Peninsula. One day they're building skyscrapers, and the next people are leaving the keys in their leased cars at the airport as they flee recession. Everything there is interlinked to the price of oil.
I'm no oilman. My career is in telecom and consumer electronics. I'm a tech geek. I've worked in 70 countries and always managed to get along with the cultures I met. I'm half-Arab, half-Croat, instilled with the progressive values of Sweden, where I live, and schooled by Anglophones.
But now I trade oil. When I started in December 2015, it was because of the Iran nuclear deal. I knew this was bearish for prices. What caught my attention, though, was that two of every three exported barrels of oil are shipped by sea. I already had an account with MarineTraffic.com for tracking vessels carrying the broadband routers I sell for a living for a Swedish company I co-founded. I clicked the "tanker" filter on its website - and my entire screen caught measles as thousands of red icons swarmed across the ports of Singapore, Rotterdam, Tianjin and Houston.
I was mesmerised, and spent countless nights learning the routes, taking note of the time each trip takes, studying the anatomy of various key ports to see which vessel dimensions could enter and which could not.
And then I decided to make things a little more interesting for myself - and for others trading oil. I began by posting my findings (every single one of them) on Twitter to see what would happen. Sure enough, people were captivated by the maps and random oil facts. It was like a 140-character school. A wealth of detail handed in small, digestible servings. Followers asked me for updates, and I provided them Houston tanker movements each day, with webcam shots of the harbour and weather.
I even asked MarineTraffic.com to create a portal for the very important VLCC supertanker Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. They obliged after only two weeks, and I could inform fellow tweeters of what was likely to show up on that coming Petroleum Status update from the EIA. By now I was well versed in that Energy Information Administration report that had held such influence on the oil price that Wednesday back in December 2015. Most of the time, my data about what would be in the report were right.
The problem with Twitter back then was that the traders on it were basically each his or her own island, floating freely in the unknown. Yet they all shared a thirst for the latest information - and for people like them. I tried to fix this, creating a virtual home where everyone felt welcome. On 29 April, 2016, a hashtag was born: #OOTT, or the Organization of Oil-Trading Tweeters. On a slow December 2016 day, we got about 2m daily viewers. During an Opec pow-wow it's more like 6m.
#OOTT has now become a force of its own, as journalists, day traders, investors, scholars, sailors, petroleum engineers and enthusiasts all apply the hashtag to their tweets, at the rate of few a minute. The popularity of this hashtag has brought with it high-profiled contributors from Wall Street, governments and even the International Energy Agency (IEA). Everyone is now in touch! News and views are exchanged; charts are flung across the Twitterverse in real-time; everyone benefits. It's all pro bono and contributors have seen an exponential rise in personal followers, which spurs them to keep contributing. My own following on Twitter (@samir_madani) has grown to 9,000, from only 500 just a year ago.
To improve our tanker-tracking, regular #OOTTers Lisa Ward (@Lisa_Ward1990), Kishore Gunturu (@geauxgunturu) and I decided to ditch our slow online Google workbook and launch a website instead. The content at TankerTrackers.com is entirely free (but costs $4 a month - and a lot of sweat and time - to run). We don't seek subscription fees, donations or revenue from online adverts. The site is by no means a business - but it allows us to provide our growing audience with a daily update of how many tankers and barrels there are in ports and fleets of interest.
We aren't the IEA, Opec or another multi-government agency. But our open-source methods have been pretty successful so far. We have become something of a go-to on tanker data thanks to our relative accuracy in areas like Iranian floating storage. Our data were found to be comparable with the well-established league of industrial tanker-tracking sources. More - much more - is on the way.