Why We Love Graphics

Evangeline Hines, Operations Manager and Patrick Baine, Senior Analyst

If no one understands your research, did it really even happen? At C4ADS, we think hard about how to turn our research into concise analytical findings. Consistently, we find graphics to be one of the most effective ways of condensing research into a single, comprehensible format. Our work often requires the explanation of complex networks, relationships, and patterns that would be nearly impossible to make sense of without graphics. Good graphics pack in a lot of information, but they also drive you to ask questions and dig deeper.

Getting this right depends on choosing the right graphics. Representing the data in a dishonest or confusing way is worse than not using graphics at all. Here, I wish to highlight a few examples in which we have structured complex and large data sets to make them intuitive and informative. This work would not have been possible without the R Suite of software and our wonderful Senior Analyst, Patrick Baine.

Flying Under the Radar: Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector 

How do you map the air transit routes used for wildlife trafficking? This is not an easy task, especially given the lack of open source data on the issue. For the ROUTES project, we needed to reconcile several different databases of seizures in the air transport sector of various wildlife products to help industry, government, and civil society better understand the flow of these products. 


This map is helpful because it gives you a few pieces of basic insight right when you first look at it. It then prompts you to ask questions. There appears to be more activity in Europe, Africa, and Asia; why? Why is there so little in North and South America? What about Australia? I don’t usually think of Western Europe as a trafficking hotspot, so what is going on there? If you were to look at the spreadsheets of data that went into this graphic, I doubt that many people would come away with the same level of insight as they would by looking at the graphic. Graphics like this help you see the bigger picture and then encourage you to ask important research questions.

World Customs Organization: Cultural Heritage Trafficking in 2016


For this project, C4ADS analyzed World Customs Organization data to determine patterns in the trafficking of cultural heritage objects, such as antiquities, art, or other significant objects. This graphic shows the flow of cultural heritage trafficking in 2016. The chart visualizes the flow of goods from the country in which they originated to the destination country, as indicated by the arrow. The number of goods per country can be seen along the edge of the circle.

This is another graphic that 1) is pleasing to the eye, 2) does a great job of conveying movement (before you even have context, you know something is moving from one place to another), and 3) raises questions. One question that is raised by this graphic is what happened to the cultural heritage flowing out of Syria given the context of events there in 2016? Given the news coverage of the issue, I would have expected to see that show up here, and yet… Questions like this require more digging to answer, and can even become the base of full-fledged C4ADS projects.

World Customs Organization: Psychotropic Substance Seizure in 2016


For the same WCO project, C4ADS received a different dataset related to seizures of narcotics. While flows were interesting, other patterns related to time of seizure told an equally compelling story. This jitter plot represents seizures of psychotropic substances in 2016 by country. From the chaos of dots, patterns emerge. Again, this graphic gives insight, but also points to important questions and next steps for further research. What caused the increase of seizures in the second half of the year in Germany? Why did Estonia have a drop in seizures at the end of the year? Was there a reason that Hungary started reporting seizures in March? What about the trends within the types of psychotropic substances being seized? Most strikingly, what caused the glaring disparity between the frequency of seizures in the United States compared to the rest of the world? By looking at this graphic, you can both gain knowledge and understand that there are underlying trends in drug trafficking that require further study.

These are only three examples from one of the multiple platforms we use to develop graphics, but I think they do a great job of demonstrating what great graphics can do, and how they can add to stellar research. The complexity of the world in which we live and the data it produces will only continue to grow. We want to continue to explore new and innovative approaches to open source data and analysis, and eye-catching and insightful graphics are going to be a key component of our approach.


Crowdsourcing, Central Asian Steppes, and a Creature Straight Out of Science Fiction

Ben Spevack, Analyst

In Kazakhstan, one environmental conservation organization has developed an innovative approach to preserve one of the region’s most unique yet critically endangered species. 

Saiga tartarica (saiga for short) is a species of antelope that has inhabited Eurasia for over 100,000 years. Adult saiga typically stand between two and three feet tall at the shoulder, and adult males have ribbed horns that grow to between eleven and fifteen inches. But the saiga’s most remarkable feature is undoubtedly its snout. The peculiar appendage allows the saiga to filter dust from the air and regulate its body temperature.

The saiga’s habitat used to stretch across the Eurasian continent, but now consists of a few small pockets in Central Asia.

The saiga’s habitat used to stretch across the Eurasian continent, but now consists of a few small pockets in Central Asia.

While once abundant and widespread, with 1.25 million saiga worldwide as recently as 1981, the species has suffered a catastrophic decline, decreasing to only 24,000 in 2004. Current estimates place today’s saiga population at around 165,600, with the remaining herds found in pockets of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Mongolia. 

Current distribution of saiga from the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Current distribution of saiga from the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Poaching is one of the principal causes of the saiga’s drastic population decline in recent years. According to traditional Chinese medicine, saiga horn is believed to have medicinal properties that can regulate “internal heat” (“清热”). The horn is typically crushed, dissolved, and sold as “cooling water.” While trafficking in saiga horn is nominally illegal under the CITES convention, enforcement is lax and the trade is relatively open. In Kazakhstan, traders will even post flyers soliciting the horns, complete with a phone number or an email address.

The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (Казахстанская ассоциация сохранении биоразнообразия, or ACBK for short) has a unique approach to tackling the issue of saiga poaching and horn trafficking. ACBK runs an annual campaign in partnership with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Committee on Forestry and Fauna to combat the domestic trade of saiga horns. The goals are twofold: 1) raise awareness of the illegal nature of saiga horn trafficking, and 2) create a database of names and phone numbers associated with traffickers. These goals are achieved through a crowdsourced targeting of the flyers plastered across the country.

When a volunteer comes across a poster soliciting saiga horn, he or she takes pictures and posts them on the ACBK Facebook or VKontakte page, along with the location of the ad (if the volunteer wishes to remain anonymous, he or she can send pictures to ACBK’s Whatsapp number). The volunteer then glues a sticker on the ad, which cites the specific law forbidding the sale of saiga horn. Finally, if the advertisement includes a phone number, the volunteer sends a templated text explaining that trading in saiga horn is illegal. The procedure is the same for online procurement posts, without the sticker. The campaign runs from November to January, after which ACBK aggregates the data, structures it, and passes it along to the environmental prosecutor for further investigation.

One of the stickers volunteers attached to procurement posters.

One of the stickers volunteers attached to procurement posters.

The most recently completed campaign wrapped up on January 21, 2017. As of February 26, ACBK’s pages on Facebook and VKontakte had 686 combined subscribers who contributed 92 photos. Twenty-one unique phone numbers were identified, spread across nine cities. Additionally, nineteen websites were identified as hosting posts for saiga horn. ACBK contacted the websites and requested that they take down the posts. Eleven websites complied, five did not reply, and three were defunct upon a follow-up check. While ACBK has not mentioned any resulting arrests or seizures, it has said that all the collected information has been transferred to the environmental police to assist in investigations.

This campaign is a low cost, effective approach to wildlife conservation. Organizing via social media allows for collaboration among disparate actors and crowdsourcing allows for the assiduous efforts of small-scale environmental organizations to be amplified by hundreds of local residents. While conventional anti-trafficking measures by law enforcement and NGOs hamper poaching operations and the flows of illicit wildlife products, they offer little opportunity for local participation. Contributions, regardless of size, give local volunteers ownership and investment in the outcome. In the long term, crowdsourcing campaigns such as ACBK’s may catalyze a shift in societal attitudes towards wildlife trafficking.



Welcome to the C4ADS Blog!


Varun Vira, Chief Operating Officer


We are proud to announce the formation of our new blog. This platform will allow our readers a look behind the curtain at C4ADS to get a glimpse of our processes and on topics that interest our analysts.

For those of you who are not already familiar with our work, C4ADS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing evidence-based reporting and analysis on transnational security issues. Around the world, bad actors are able to hijack licit infrastructure to accomplish their illicit aims: our mission is to make it more difficult for these bad actors and their networks to function. To do this, we use cutting-edge technologies and methodologies to analyze disparate datasets, shedding light on problems of corruption, crime, and conflict. Sound a little confusing and intense? We know what we do can be puzzling to people who don’t know us, but we hope this blog will provide a better understanding of what we do as an organization. Plus, our background provides some very interesting material that we wish to share with our readers.

What should you expect to read on this blog? Without giving too much of the suspense away, one can expect to read posts on everything from how Facebook posts can be used to deter illegal poaching of endangered animals, to follow-ups on previous C4ADS reports, to how we use different technologies to simplify our data for consumption. On this page you can expect to meet a rotating cast of North Korean proliferators, ivory and pangolin traffickers, Middle Eastern terror financiers, and other associated bad actors. And that’s just our analysts. These and many more riveting topics will be explored and posted on this blog page.

To make sure that you do not miss any content, sign-up to have C4ADS blog posts delivered directly to your inbox at the bottom of this page. We hope that you are as excited as we are for the launch of our blog—happy reading!