After more than a decade of efforts to regulate the global trade and trafficking of small arms and light weapons, there is evidence that transfers of arms and ammunition are actually on the rise. Over the past decade there has been an expansion in both the scale and spread of arms dealing. The Small Arms Survey reported in 2012 that the overall value of the trade exceeds $U S8.5 billion. And while most exports and imports are concentrated in a relatively small bandwidth of countries – the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, China, Russia, Belgium and Spain in the top tier – it is a genuinely global industry.

What is especially disconcerting is that geographic regions experiencing the sharpest uptake in imports are also often associated with above-average rates of armed violence. For example, five of the top ten most violent countries in the world (as measured by the number of homicides per 100,000 people) are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. Countries such as Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, and Venezuela are experiencing soaring rates of violent gun-related death. Virtually all of these countries are also prolific buyers (and in some cases sellers) of handguns, assault rifles and ammunition.

This year, the Igarapé Institute, is a think tank based in Rio de Janeiro, teamed up with PRIO and Google Ideas to shed light on the movement of small arms and light weapons to the world´s hot spots. The partnership is based on a common interest in mobilizing data in new and innovative ways to stimulate informed debate and action. As part of Igarapé´s commitment to promoting engagement on security and development – it is currently advising the High Level Panel – it began working on designing a new tool to visualize the authorized trade in weaponry around the world.

The collaboration generated a new on-line app to visualize “big data”. We have named it the Mapping Arms Data (MAD) visualization tool and it is available online (use the Chrome browser). MAD is a highly dynamic and interactive tool with more than a million data points showing authorized transactions in arms and ammunition since the early 1990s. The expectation of MAD is that it can inject transparency into the wider negotiations on arms control – whether the Program of Action or the Arms Trade Treaty – and provides clarity to trends that are often opaque and difficult to grasp.

The Igarapé Institute and Google Ideas also prepared a short “lightening” presentation to advertise the app and draw attention to wider issue of arms transfers during a summit sponsored by Google in July 2012. The presentation was posted on Google’s official blog. Some of the underlying data relating to the value of the arms trade and armed violence featured in the presentation was drawn from the Small Arms Survey. Likewise, panelists Ian Biddle, Sam Okello and Sylvia Longmire were invited to discuss their lived experiences. The presentation was subsequently uploaded to Youtube by Google.

Ultimately, the purpose of MAD is to make the arms trade more accessible to a wider audience. By presenting a large dataset in visually arresting and user-friendly manner, it has inspired debate among mainstream constituencies, but also people associated with technology and design industries, police and justice, humanitarian action and development, and beyond. For example, MAD has been featured by Forbes, in the Huffington Post, the AtlanticWire, Mashable, and hundreds of other outlets in more than 20 countries. Intriguingly, it was also shown in China at the Beijing Design Week in September and October, a country not typically known for its openness on arms-related issues.

The collaboration between Igarapé, PRIO and Google Ideas is a reminder that technology is not just an add-on, but increasingly a central part of content development and messaging. Researchers and practitioners will need to engage and adopt many of these visualization and analysis tools – including on issues such as the arms trade – if they are going to improve their work and trigger policy change. What is more, a combined dissemination strategy – in this came combining the development of an app, panel presentations, Youtube video, blog postings, and targeted outreach to conventional and new media – can be reasonably effective in reaching a wide audience.

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2 Responses to Visualizing the arms trade

  1. [...] Map of the day: Visualizing the global arms trade (interactive — use Chrome) with explanation [...]

  2. [...] RM: We have yet to see any major drawbacks in developing MAD. Of course, in some countries the debate on small arms and ammunition is volatile. It is often informed and fueled by ideology over evidence. We have received some critical feedback from the more extreme periphery of the pro-gun movement (owing in large part to the major exposure provided to the MAD tool among gun owners). However, what has been important is that the vast majority of those on either side of the gun debate have welcomed the tool, often reaching out to ask more questions and retrieve more information. On balance, most users recognise that MAD is a transparency device, and intended to shape more educated debate on the wider dynamics of small arms and ammunition trafficking. More explanations of the MAD tool and its implications for research and policy are available here or here. [...]

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