The lights blanketing the globe on Google's latest foray into data visualization tell a hidden story of the gun trafficking business: that understanding the movement of ammunition is just as important as understanding the movement of weapons.
Google says the interactive map, which was a joint initiative between Google Ideas and the Brazil-based Igarape Institute, was pulled together using more than a million data points of small arms, light weapons, and ammunition purchases between 1992 and 2010, based on numbers gathered by the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
"The majority of people around the world are being killed not by bombs but by guns and bullets," explained Robert Muggah, the research director at Igarape, during Google Ideas recent conference in California. (See video below.) Muggah is a former research director at Smalls Arms Survey (SAS), from which he gathers much of his data on arms sales and trafficking.
The map (which is best viewed on Google's own browser Chrome) is, at first glance, a blur of bright streaks that cross a dark globe. However, select a country and play with the filters at the bottom, and information patterns begin to emerge.
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Perhaps the most startling of these patterns is the incredible amount of money spent on ammunition. SAS thinks it amounts to half of the estimated $8.5 billion market.
In Latin America, the graphic shows that the biggest importers of ammunition are, not surprisingly, Peru and Colombia, two countries at war. But whereas Colombia's imports were relatively steady in the last three years, Peru out-imported Colombia by close to $10 million in 2010, perhaps a reflection of that government's increasing concerns about the Shining Path guerrilla group.
Perhaps more surprising is that tiny Dominican Republic imported close to the same amount of ammunition as Argentina in the last three years. Or that Mexico imported less ammunition than it exported in 2010.
The United States is, of course, the largest supplier of ammunition. Click on it and see thick red lights dripping heavily into the region's most violence-ravaged countries: Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, among them.
The market for ammunition, Muggah says, is under-appreciated in gun trafficking research and policy circles.
"Ammunition isn't something governments want to talk about," he said at the Google Ideas conference.
To be sure, as Muggah pointed out in the conference, the United Nations' meeting on controlling small arms and light weapons, held in New York in late August after the Google conference, did not mention ammunition in its 2012 declaration. (See a pdf version of the declaration here.)
The graphic shows that the arms trade remains concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. The top importers and exporters are first world nations such as the United States (who, almost like Olympic swimming, does not have a rival in this field). Russia is second, but the interactive graphic seems to connect to tiny Israel more than it should.
Still, other, smaller countries, like Mexico, have booming arms industries. The graphic shows that in 2010, imports of arms and ammunitions went up by over 400 percent relative to Mexico's historical average, while exports increased by over 200 percent.
According to SAS, there are 875 million light weapon and small arms in the world. Most of these weapons are, surprisingly, in civilian hands. Igarape estimates that 74 percent are held by civilians; 23 percent are in military hands; while less than one percent are in the hands of suspected terrorists, guerrillas and other armed actors.
These smaller movements are obviously lost in such a giant and ambitious display, as are other layers of data. It would have been revealing, for instance, to layer gun-related homicide data on top of these guns and ammunition movements to see the patterns connecting those two elements.
There also seems to be, for instance, no correlation between war, weapons imports and gun-related violence but it would have been worthwhile to impose another layer illustrating this. As Muggah pointed out in his presentation, countries like Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa have more violent deaths at the hands of guns than the war-ravaged countries Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan combined.