At a party the other night, a friend mentioned that the country supplying us with the most oil is Canada. Maybe so, I said, but on a regional basis the Middle East dominates, right? He wasn’t sure, but didn’t think so. And it turns out he was right, at least according to the US Dept. of Energy data he sent me. That data says that the Middle East ranks third among our regional sources, behind North America and Africa.

Here’s the world overview for 2007 in thousands of barrels:

And here’s the regional breakdown:

North America 1,648,765 33.56%
Africa 980,231 19.95%
Middle East 837,841 17.05%
South America 784,999 15.98%
Europe 567,152 11.54%
Asia 91,236 1.86%
Oceania 2,774 0.06%

The links go to regional views where you can hover to reveal per-country numbers.

When I do these kinds of exercises, I’m always struck by two things. First, it amazes me how much of what we think we know is wrong. I was sure that the Middle East was the dominant regional source.

Second, I’m always a bit discouraged by how geeky you still have to be — even with the great online tools we have now — in order to pull answers to simple questions out of raw data. When my friend cited these numbers, the first thing I wanted to know was: How do they break down by region?

I wound up using Dabble DB because I happened to know that it includes all the necessary ingredients:

  • Can import tabular data from web pages
  • Can drop and rename columns in an imported table
  • Given a column with locations — countries, states, zipcodes — can map the corresponding columns
  • Can publish views for anybody to see

This was a huge leg up! But a lot of folks wouldn’t know about that tool. And even if they did, many wouldn’t overcome some of the remaining obstacles. For example:

  • Importing. There are a few different ways to grab data from a web page. You can have Dabble DB parse the page, or you can copy/paste. In this case, I wound up trying both and had better luck with the latter. But we’re still very much in an era when data published to the web is not really intended to be used as data. That first step can be a doozy.
  • Sharing. After pasting in the data and reducing the table to two columns — country names and 2007 1000s of barrels — I had my answer. And if you were an authorized user of the application, I could have shared it with you. But in order to publish to the world, I had to produce a special URL. And then I realized a single one wouldn’t suffice. The shareable views aren’t interactive. You can’t drill down from the world overview to the Middle East segment. So I wound up having to create views for each region, generate an URL for each view, and keeping track of all that was confusing even for me.

Still, I’m excited. We’re really close to the point where non-specialists will be able to find data online, ask questions of it, produce answers that bear on public policy issues, and share those answers online for review and discussion. A few more turns of the crank, and we’ll be there. And not a moment too soon.