Project description

The Opium Trail is a long form data feature, tracking the journey of Afghan Opium and derivative drugs along the main East-West smuggling trail, – the Balkan route – , to the UK, via Iran and Turkey. While researching the data we stumbled across a key piece of information: That the bulk of Afghanistan’s record harvest in 2017 would take 18 months to reach Europe – the top line of the story.
The feature looks at data from the UNODC, but presents and contextualises the findings through telling the stories of people whose lives are directly affected along the route. We have selected key data from various reports (see the methodology) and blended these with personal stories to make the topic relatable to our audience and to bring the data to life. The numbers are almost hidden behind the individual case studies, yet form the backbone of the feature.
The opium trail is mapped through creative design provided by Maryam Nikan and places the user in the story,

There are four ‘stops’ on this journey, starting in Afghanistan, where BBC reporter Auliya Atrafi tells the story of the opium farmers and collectors in ‘The Harvest’, an unusual, counter-intuitive tale, explaining the cultural and economic dynamics behind the industry. (The key data points here are the near 90% global supply figure of Afghan Opium and the cultivation explosion over the last 15 years – illustrated through intuitive scrolling graphics.)

Then passing through Iran, Faranak Amidi, the BBC Near East Women’s Affairs reporter tells the gripping, first person story of a mother and daughter, both addicted to opium. (The key data point here is the opium addiction epidemic in Iran, with 2 million users.)

Next stop is Turkey, where BBC Turkish reporter Fundanur Ozturk, shadowed anti-narcotics officers and reported on their daily work and the ways people smuggle opiates across the Iranian border at the key transit point of Van.
(The key data here is the ‘importance’ of Van and Turkey as whole for the smuggling business with 80% of Afghan heroin passing through).

The journey finishes in the UK at a rehabilitation centre, where BBC Near East Data journalist Leoni Robertson reveals the story of a former heroin addict who has turned his life around.
(The key data here is the cost of drug rehabilitation to health services and the growing danger of synthetic opioid, Fentanyl.

Although the data is not always visually prominent, it’s weaved into all parts of the story as explained in the methodology below. There was careful consideration in selecting the most relevant data for public interest, and to show the connection and importance of the countries along the Balkan route, not just through figures, but through the personal stories and the devastating consequences in individual lives.
So while we have put the personal stories at the very heart of the feature, it is a piece of data driven journalism under close consulting the UNODC, Office of National Statistics, UK, Turkey and Iran and the UK charity, Addaction.

What makes this project innovative?

It’s innovative because the most significant smuggling trail for Afghan opiates - the Balkan route - has never been reported in this combination of maps, data and personal accounts. The feature uses scientific research by the UNODC, bringing it into the public domain through the stories of the people ‘behind the numbers.’ To make the project visually engaging, we used the Shorthand platform with a focus on mobile users as our target audiences in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and the Arab world are heavily mobile biased. We also sought to be innovative in our treatment of data, e.g. showing the significant increase in poppy cultivation over the past 15 years, by converting the number of hectares planted into poppy-symbols which increasingly cover the map of Afghanistan as the user scrolls down the pages. The size and number of the flowers are proportional to the UNODC data for the years shown. The scrollmation feature is also used to great effect by tracing the journey through the moving arrow, situating the user within each country as we move along the Balkan route. The maps and symbols visually ‘translate’ the information from UNODC and the European Drug Report into an interactive guide to one of the most prominent drug smuggling trails in the world. In addition we’ve made 4 videos, including 2 animations, telling the personal stories in another format, both to target social media audiences and to use as promotion for the Shorthand feature. We have also turned the map, data and associated visuals into an engaging twitter thread to target the Persian audience in particular, making use of one of the most important social media platforms there. Another aspect of innovation of this product was the type of collaboration it fostered: Across skill sets, departments, countries and audience segments. We brought together designers, animators, data and video journalists, as well as local reporters in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and the UK, not to speak of the individuals who shared their sometimes painful but always highly personal stories.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

We targeted a wide variety of very different audiences with different consumption patterns. The first service to publish, BBC Turkce reported way above average figures with some extremely impressive engagement data:

BBC Turkce, SHORTHAND On site


Visitors: 16.3k

Avg. engaged time: 3.43 min

Facebook Shorthand link post


Reach: 154k

Total engagement: 12k

Facebook video post


Reach: 615k

Total engagement: 119.5k

YouTube video


Views: 86.5k

Audience retention: 4:58 (55.4%)

Instagram story

Impressions: 23.5k

Link clicks: 831

BBC Kyrgyz
By contrast, our BBC Kyrgyz service which has a low reach, high loyalty audience achieved a consistent average engaged time of 4 minutes over 10 days.

Since then we have published in multiple languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Uzbek, Persian and Pashto. The one common factor is the impressibely high engagement/retention rate of between 3 – 4 minutes, showing that the design and data visualisation techniques chosen have kept readers with the story.

Source and methodology

Documents and data relating to Opium Shorthand We researched by working with the reports below and talking to:- Irmgard Zeiler, UNODC Dr Thomas Pietschmann, Drug Research Section (DRS), UNODC Kamran Niaz, Public Health Physician Epidemiologist, UNODC · Opium along the Balkan Route UNODC - · Opium Survey Peace Security May 2018 - · World Drug Report 2018 - · Opium Survey Nov 2018 - · Information and further data from Dr Thomas Pietschmann – UNODC (Nov 2018) The Balkan route continues to be the main opiate transit trafficking route to Europe. For 2016 our data suggest that some 80% of the heroin destined for countries in Western and Central Europe transited the Balkan route. The 18 months were actually calculated at the beginning of the new millennium by British forensic scientists in a (classified) study analysing changes in heroin purities and impurities in Afghanistan, along the trafficking routes and later on the UK market (based in the UK on data from the forensic scientific services (FSS)), analysing the amount of time it took until such changes in heroin purities and impurities were found on the UK market. (The head of the UN laboratory was then a British citizen who had worked before in the Forensic Science Services in the UK and thus got access to such classified studies). The 18 months applied to heroin being shipped to Turkey and then along the Balkan route to the Netherlands and then to the UK. In addition, some of the heroin is rather rapidly being shipped via Pakistan by air to the UK (often by Pakistani organized crime groups, located in the UK), and for such heroin changes in purities and impurities are seen much faster on the UK market (1 to 2 months after production in Afghanistan). Thus, there are tend to be two waves: first a small wave, shortly after the changes took place in Afghanistan/Pakistan and then around 18 months later a more important larger wave of changes in Afghanistan on the UK market, reflecting that most of the heroin, destined for the UK market, still being trafficked via the Balkan route to the UK. While I do not know of any new study, all available information seems to still basically fit the 18 months delay between shipments out of Afghanistan and arrivals on the UK market. Opium addiction levels from Kamran Niaz, Public Health Physician Epidemiologist, UNODC · Turkey Drug Reports 2018-2017-2016 and European Drug Report 2018. “According to Turkey Drug Report 2018, heroin which came to Turkey from Iran and transferred with packages from the provinces on the border of Iran such as Van and Hakkari to Istanbul aim to reach European countries.” · ONS UK - Deaths related to drug poisoning by selected substances · UK Rehabilitation Data financial cost -

Technologies Used

Shorthand, Adobe Illustration, Photoshop and After effects. For animation, Adobe Illustration, Photoshop, After effect and Premiere pro. We used a wide variety of communication tools to connect the various collaborators, including Slack, WhatsApp, Dropbox and Google Sheets.

Project members

Maryam Nikan - Lead Designer Feranak Amidi - Journalist, Iran Alice Grenie - Designer Leoni Robertson - Reporter UK, Data Journalist Fundanur Ozturk - Reporter, Turkey Efe Oc - Reporter, Turkey Auliya Atrafi - Reporter , Afghanistan



Additional links


Click Follow to keep up with the evolution of this project:
you will receive a notification anytime the project leader updates the project page.