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Mapping the Arms Trade

​ROBERT MUGGAH has contributed to the Small Arms Survey’s look at the global small arms and light weapons trade for more than a decade. So it’s no surprise that when Google Ideas wanted to use its technology to provide transparency to arms networks by visualizing the data and making it interactive, the company approached Muggah, research director at Igarapé Institute.

Muggah, along with colleague Nic Marsh, who’s a research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), helped provide content for the initial Mapping Arms Data (MAD) tool designed by Google; now PRIO and Igarapé are in charge of the tool, and Muggah says they’ve ramped it up. The tool provides a 360-degree view of the world so that users can get a glimpse of the depth of the global small arms trade, which is a multibillion dollar industry. MAD draws connections between importers and exporters and users can search by year, country, weapon types, and other variables. “We instinctively understand that small arms and ammunition trade is global. But I think it’s often hard to present that on a static map or on a simple longitudinal chart or Excel table, much less in a large report,” says Muggah. He says that the MAD tool provides a sharp and intuitive overview of the big picture, and it shows numerous types of data simultaneously. He adds that it’s interactive, so users can tease out more information about data.

Muggah adds that the tool’s design is visually striking. “As researchers, we tend to underestimate the power of good design.... We tend to think the data will speak for itself, and it’s true in some cases…but when you’re talking about engaging a wide [array] of stakeholders, which is what we try to do with MAD…having good design is really important for helping introduce and shape the conversation.” Muggah says that he and Marsh have made sure that various NGOs, diplomats, officials, and others had access to the tool, which is now publicly available. A wider swath of people are using the tool than the researchers ever anticipated, says Muggah.

The tool has come into play in real-life meetings with UN diplomats who were meeting about arms trade agreements. Says Muggah: “There was a big discussion in the UN that it’d be impossible to track ammunition, which…constitutes about half of the global annual value of the arms trade (small arms and light weapons trade). And the argument [from the nations] was we can’t be held to account for ammunition, which we produce, because ‘the stuff is small, it’s difficult to track, it’s not our responsibility; we don’t want to have liability for it.’ Well, I think what MAD does is it shows you, in fact, [that] you can track large volumes of ammunition, and it gives you a sense of the trends and scale of the movements in ammunition, whether they’re exported or imported.”

Muggah says that by visualizing that on the application during negotiations, Muggah and Marsh were able to help convince a number of negotiators from countries that were more dubious “to take on a more progressive stance and to take on board the idea of introducing more oversight over the movement of ammunition, especially to hot spots around the world.”

Some of the ramping up of arms trading that is shown in the map, such as in Sudan in the early 2000s or in Guatemala after its civil war ended in 1996, has correlated with great increases in gun violence.

Marsh says the data comes from more than 30 different sources. Some of it is reported by countries, such as the United States, which produces an annual report of arms trading. Other sources include the United Nations registry of conventional arms.

However, Marsh points out that there are indeed holes in the data. Some countries don’t report on their trades or don’t report on certain categories of arms trade. There are some ways around this, says Marsh. One of the ways is called “mirroring.” What this means is that you’ll try to determine what a country like China, which doesn’t report its arms exports, is exporting by looking at countries that say that they import arms from China. Of course, there is still the potential that China is exporting arms to a nation that doesn’t report its imports. There are also illicit trades that won’t be officially reported anywhere, as well as certain inconsistencies that researchers might be met with, such as more countries reporting that they import arms from a nation than that nation is claiming as exports.

MAD only includes the authorized trades for now. The researchers hope to add illicit arms trade information in the future.