Together with Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat, the KRO-NCRV investigated where sold Dutch arms end up. These are all legal arms trades, but those weapons, boats, tanks and communication devices can get into the hands of dictatorial regimes or governments with questionable views on human rights. We wanted to find out where these weapons are being used, and for what purposes. It’s a basic thing in journalism: checks and balances. We want to see if the system for selling arms to other countries has failsafes for usage we don’t want to be a part in. We did this research by building a database with all licenses, doing some old-fashioned journalism, doing open source research with the help of Bellingcat (OSINT), and with the help of our readers. During a two-week bootcamp we researched all of our important leads, and during the second week some of our readers joined our research to help us with specific searches. During and afterwards this bootcamp, we published our findings and methods on a website to help other journalists to do this kind of research themselves. In the end, we could trace 17 deals to their end users. An example: we found out that a YPR-765 armored vehicle (sold by The Netherlands in 1996) ended up in the hands of ISIS, and was used during an attack on the Egyptian city of El-Arish. One of our team members is fluid in Arabic and could help us with the translation of certain texts. We found a video which showed the attack, and with the Bellingcat-method, we could find the exact location of the attack (thanks to the power lines shown in the video). We made a series of 6 videos to present our results, and a data visualisation to introduce the key position of the Netherlands in arms trade.
What makes this project innovative?
Explosive Export is an innovative project for two main reasons. First of all, we combined data journalism with OSINT. Our main leads where derived from our dataset with export licenses. After doing some searching and reporting, we could make a list with important and less important leads. Then we searched for this specific weapon on social media, Youtube, etc. Can we find images or video of these weapons, and can we verify that his is the specific weapon that's being sold to this country? In some cases, we could. That's interesting, because the Dutch government hasn't done this, although all of our research material is open source.The other innovative aspect in this project is the collaboration between journalists (3 organisations) and our readers. We not only asked our public to give some answers, but we invited them to work together in this research. In the second week of our bootcamp, at least 3 persons joined our team full-time. Also, through Twitter and Facebook we got some help on verifying and recognising tanks, armored vehicles and air planes. Most researches are done and kept inside a news room, but we wanted to do our open source research in an open source environment.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The impact of our project was mainly questions in the Dutch House of Representatives. After we published our project page, did some reporting on Dutch national radio and a special podcast on this subject, we got some attention of parliament members.
Source and methodology
Our research can be divided into 5 phases:- Building the database of weapons licenses from 2006 until now. We could find a lot of them on the website of the Dutch parliament, but not all of the deals are stated there. We also spoke to human rights organisations and NGO's to find some deals that slipped through the cracks of the license system.- With this database, we made a second database with important leads (what weapon, when was it sold, to whom, can we find out if this country is involved in human rights violations, etc.), questions we had about certain companies and people we had to talk to.- We took the main leads to our two-week bootcamp. During this bootcamp, we searched for images and video to verify.- These images and videos had to be verified. This is a proces in which the smallest details can matter: paint splatters on a serial number, the camouflage patern on a tank, the canon on an armored vehicle. And also verifying the locations: a patern of roads on the background of a photo, the electrical wiring on the edge of a town.- Open source publication, so also publishing results during our investigation. And afterwards, we published some tools and tips for other people who want to do this kind of research.
We used a number of tools to wrangle the data: mainly Excel/Google Spreadsheets and Open Refine. The verification part was a bit more intensive. Here's a list of tools used:Google MapsGoogle Earth ProWikimapiaTerraserverEchosec (VK)War Wire (Instagram)StalkscanWeb.Archive.orgArchive.isKeep (https://www.rightslab.org/keep/)RevEye (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/reveye-reverse-image-sear/keaaclcjhehbbapnphnmpiklalfhelgf/related)Google: reversed image searchYoutube Dataviewer (https://citizenevidence.amnestyusa.org/)Geonames (http://www.geonames.org/)
Thomas Mulder (design)Badr Ismaili (design)Marije Rooze (interactive)Coen Bouman (video)Lighthouse ReportsBellingcat