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Entrepreneurs make headway in oil-and-gas industry that resists change

Johan Rothzen and Rob Pittman, co-founders of Calgary-based Oplii.

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You're a junior oil-and-gas producer, managing a pile of sites crawling with people and equipment that are constantly moving around. You have to keep track of them all, and the government requires regular inspections.

Some of those inspections need to be filed to regulators, while others have to be on-hand in case you get audited. It piles up.

Big oil companies pile money into these operations-management systems, with products such as SAP, but this can take years to deploy. Even when oil prices were high, smaller producers could be wary of committing to that kind of investment, and end up using spreadsheets to keep track of inspections.

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"They're either using a bunch of disconnected solutions, or they're not using anything at all," says Rob Pittman, a managing partner at Oplii, a Calgary-based service. Oplii wants to supply junior and intermediary oil-and-gas producers the same kinds of features as their enterprise counterparts, but in a cloud-based web app.

Oplii takes a work site as its primary metaphor, and builds out a conceptual map of every building, facility, and piece of equipment that's there, allowing a company to track of its whereabouts, its condition, and its value.

But where the company is really pushing forward is in the inspections field, where paperwork can pile up. Oplii is pitching the ability to use web apps on mobile devices to perform spot inspections on such things as pipes and tanks, making notes and taking pictures.

This helps ensure records are where they're supposed to be when regulators or potential buyers come looking, and systemizing the inspection process opens the door to mining the data for insights into how facilities are faring in the field.

"You could look for patterns in equipment failure: this manufacturer of tanks in this part of the province is lasting X years," says Johan Rothzen, Oplii's other managing partner, and Pittman's co-founder in the venture. (The pair are also the principles of Urban Lighthouse, a web-consulting firm that Oplii grew out of.)

The software engineers have been doing online consulting for oil-and-gas firms for more than a decade. Oplii grew out of a platform that, most recently, was redeveloped for a single client – Peyto Exploration and Development, an Alberta gas producer. But the pair retained the intellectual property for the software, and after they completed a rebuild of the product – with a new focus on mobile services – they started offering it to other firms, with Peyto's blessing.

The oil-and-gas sector has a reputation for being institutionally resistant to change, at least where IT is concerned. "Unless it's directly involved in getting things out of the ground, they're 10 years behind the rest of the world," Pittman says.

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But the entrepreneurs say they're also seeing a willingness to change, especially if it means improving siloed pieces of in-house software that – like so much in-house software – offers a lousy user experience.

"We're not an engineering firm that's evolved to start tracking equipment," Rothzen says. "We're a software company that's looking at what's happening in the industry, and saying we can do better."

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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