Episode 6: Chris Cook
In this episode of "Maritime Means...", Blythe is joined by award-winning, data-driven journalist Chris Cook. Chris is a University of Oxford grad, currently serving as senior reporter for the Financial Times, where he recently co-authored a story that exposed Russia secretly taking grain from occupied Ukraine. Chris talks about using satellite AIS data and photographic imagery to bring light into dark shipping practices in his stories.Listen now (00:51:06)
Full episode transcript
- He's an award-winning data-driven journalist, with bylines that include Tortoise Media and the BBC. This University of Oxford grad currently serves as senior reporter for the Financial Times, and recently co-authored a story that exposed Russia secretly taking grain from occupied Ukraine. It's a big story, with global ramifications, that were diving into today, so let's go ahead and get started.
Hello again, I'm your host Blythe Brumleve and I'm proud to welcome in Chris Cook as our next guest of "Maritime Means...", a podcast by Spire Maritime dedicated to building a community of innovators. Welcome into the show, Chris.
- Thank you for having me.
Being a data-driven journalist
Chris explains how the invasion of Ukraine brought about a number of stories around Russia profiteering from Ukrainian goods.
- As we've kind of mentioned in the intro, one of the big reasons that we wanted to have you on the show was this concept around dark shipping. You know, this is a maritime-focused podcast so the concept of AIS shipping data being turned off, issues around compliance, insurance, potential smuggling, all of that stuff or all areas of importance to this industry, but as a data-driven journalism, I'm curious as to how you got started by using this kind of research for your work.
- The invasion of Ukraine - I should say the re-invasion of Ukraine - in the beginning of this year opened up a series of enormously important stories for the Financial Times, not just grain and shipping, but also coal and steel, following where oil is going, as this sort of odd patchwork of sanctions starts to come in against Russia.
And, in addition, we had this sort of looting problem, so some of these goods, particularly grain, are not sanctioned, but actually whether the grain comes from occupied Ukrainian territory - which would make it looted - or comes from legitimate Russia - which makes it fine, and ok to sell - those are things of enormous interest to us, and actually trying to unpack whether or not with grain Russia is successfully managing to loot the land it's occupying.
Which is a sort of a difficult thing, right? Because we need the grain to get out, we just don't want Russia to profit from it. So there are these sort of morally difficult and ambiguous - not ambiguous, they're stealing it, it's not ambiguous - but we don't also want the grain to rot in a silo. So it's not quite the black and white story that we'd hoped for. But it's really important to understand these flows, to understand what's going on, so you can understand the grey market, and so you can understand how Russia is financing itself during this occupation.
Covering maritime stories
Maritime runs in the family, and Chris talks about how maritime stories are covered in the Financial Times.
- Now, with all of that said, being a journalist for so long, you have had the ability to cover a variety of stories, and this story in particular has a maritime component to it. When did your first sort of fascination with maritime begin?
- Well, actually, my dad worked at the Baltic Exchange in London, he was a ship finance person. So we've always had - I remember my dad coming home with Maersk tanker models as a child. I've always had a - I think my background knowledge of shipping has always been slightly weird, because my dad, he worked for P&O on bulk shipping for many years. It's been a thing that's been around a lot, and actually, as is the way at these things, members of my family ended up drifting into strange shipping things, so one of my sisters is a ship employer. It's strangely hereditary - not related to Captain Kirk - but strangely hereditary otherwise.
- It's pretty fascinating, it's one of those industries, especially just shipping in general, that once you start learning the nuances of it, it kind of just sucks you in and then you can't really ever escape it, you notice it in all assets and facets of life - is that safe to say for you?
- Yeah, and also I think, as a reporter, there's particular interest, because it's both under-covered, there are big stories about shipping - or that could be told through shipping - that get generally under-covered, and there's also enormous amounts of information that's, if not published, or public, that's available. Whether that is talking to port agents in trying to get - to find out what they know, talking to ship spotters, talking - of course, AIS tracking and increasingly these days satellite photography as well.
And the thing about working for an organization like the FT, the advantage we have is we have an enormous depth of experience dealing with data reporting - our bread and butter is this number has gone up, this number has gone down - the core FT story. We have a comprehensive capacity for processing big data stories.
But actually, we've also got a really big foreign correspondents network that, in this story, we relied on - the fact that we have a really good reporter in Turkey in Laura Pitel, and we have the other person who worked with me was someone called Polina Ivanova, who is a Russian journalist who is based in Germany at the moment, and the fact that we have people who are able to complement the high-level data stuff, and plug in holes, meant that we were able to do something that went beyond just the things that you can get straightforwardly out of the data itself.
The Kerch Strait & Port Kavkaz
The fundamentals of the FT story are explained by Chris around two pillars - the Kerch Strait and the Port Kavkaz. He deep dives into the importance of the provenance of grain around the area, and how the origin of goods is being concealed.
- Well that's a perfect segway to get into the story that you co-author with Polina. Can you give us a brief rundown of the Russian stealing from occupied Ukraine - stealing that grain. Can you give us a rundown of that story?
- Sure, so this, in essence, is part two of something we wrote in July and, the thing we wrote was really saying, it's really important to understand this stretch of water called the Kerch Strait. And I'm sure lots of your listeners will know where the Kerch Strat is, it's been in the news recently because it's where the Crimea Bridge is, it's the thing that got blown up.
And the Kerch Strait is important, because it's one of the places at sea where, if you like, occupied Ukraine meets legitimate Russia, right? The Kerch Strait, narrow stretch of water between Crimea and Russia - occupied Crimea and Russia - and if you're sitting to the South of the Kerch Strait, looking North - that's on the Black Sea, looking North, to the Kerch Strait, to the Sea of Azov - on your left, broadly speaking, is occupied Ukraine, and on your right is legitimate Russia, alright? So if you're a ship, and you pick up grain from my left hand port, a port on the left hand side of your ship, you are probably stealing from Ukraine, and it's looted grain. If you get the same grain, but from the right-hand side of your ship, it's probably fine, it's probably come from legitimate Russian ports.
So it's a place where, whether you have turned left or right when you come out the Kerch Strait is really important. And that is why Russia has a particular role for the Kerch Strait, which is basically - if you have stolen a load of goods from Ukraine, and then you go and park up in the Kerch Strait, you turn off your AIS, right? You go off to an occupied Ukrainian port, and then you turn up at the Kerch Strait and turn your AIS back on, it's very difficult to know from that whether what you've got is a legitimate good or an illegitimate good. It's the place where the two bump up against each other.
And there's a port on the Kerch Strait called Kavkaz and, if you look at the statistics, Port Kavkaz is incredibly busy. In midsummer it's shipping something like a fifth, a quarter of all of the grain out of Russia, you know, the world's largest grain exporter. Port Kavkaz is like two dogs and a poney, it's got one quay next to a grain elevator and it's got a transshipment area - two transshipment areas, big transshipment areas at sea, which extensively is where all this business is happening.
We basically think it is a paperwork factory, so if you've gone to occupied Ukraine and you've got a load of looted grain and you want to sell it to Turkey, and you know the Turkish Customs officials are now starting to ask more sets of questions about whether "when you went over to Kerch Strait, did you turn left or right?", that paperwork has become more important. We get the suspicion, as they say, that basically people are going to Port Kavkaz getting their port authorities there to rebadge their stuff as having been loaded in Port Kavkaz and not one of the occupied ports. You know, this is really significant, it's really large amounts of grain coming through this transit.
Tracking the Pawell
Chris explains the focus on one particular ship - the Pawell - and how they could tell the story through it - including paperwork that told different stories.
- So what we did, we managed to track down that the paperwork for one shipment. I say the paperwork - we got two bits of paperwork. We got the paperwork which said that this shipment - this ship called the Pawell. It's a little tub, it's a little general cargo ship. It's only about 3,000 metric tons. So, dinky little grain ship - if you think the ships coming out of Sevastopol at the moment are 25,000, right? This is a really little tub.
This ship, the Pawell, which is a Syrian-flagged vessel, we got paperwork saying it got filled in Berdyansk, now Berdyansk is definitively on the left-hand, it is an occupied Ukrainian port, and it's also in a region called Zaporizhzia which is mostly occupied by the Russians - not entirely, the town of Zaporizhzhia itself is not, oddly, so it's quite difficult to talk about. The region of Zaporizhzhia, which is around it, is. We got this paperwork showing that the ship, the Pawell had filled up in Berdyansk, which makes it a violator, a breacher of the law.
We also noticed that, when it turned up in Turkey, it presented different paperwork which suggested that it had actually filled in Port Kavkaz, and the grain, rather than having come from occupied Ukraine had actually come from Samara, which is like an inland region in Russia. So we had these two bits of paperwork, we had these two parallel stories, the Pawell has two biographies for this piece of grain, right? We've got paperwork that comes from Berdyansk, and we've got paperwork that says it comes from Russia.
And we had this problem, because we could write a story that says "Well look - what do you think?" to our readers. But actually that's not - I mean, I think that's not good journalism, you should avoid that at all costs because, fundamentally, you're saying, "well, one of these people is lying, this has either been forged fundamentally by Ukrainian activists trying to knock this Russian business", which would be quite odd, "or it's been produced by these Russians who were trying to pass off Ukrainian goods as Russian, and our priors are really clear", right? There's very little reason why Ukraine would do that, and also we know how they work, and we have this sort of sense at this point of how the Ukrainian authorities behave on some of this stuff, and it was very out of character, we've never come across that sort of forgery before.
So we were pretty clear to begin with, we were 90/10 sure, that this is a shipment from Berdyansk that had new paperwork issued from Port Kavkaz to disguise the origin of the grain. Now the problem is we had to prove it, right? We couldn't just say "it's probably", you know, "it doesn't make sense the other way around". So the first thing we did is that we went and found satellite photographs from Planet Labs, a satellite photography provider, and they showed that basically Berdyansk is a pretty awful port these days, it's wrecked. Like lots of the cranes there just don't work, there's a burnout ship - like a damaged ship blocking up one of the quays. It's very very quiet.
So there's only been - I think, at this point when we were talking about it in August - about 3 shipments of grain that had come out of Berdyansk since the occupation, like one a month. Really, really quiet. And we knew also that the Pawell, the ship, had basically turned off its AIS for 5 days when we think it made the travel to Berdyansk, and in the middle of those 5 days, in mid-August, we spot a ship of the same dimensions as the Pawell. Now the thing is, it's a pretty low resolution photograph, and this presented a bit of a problem for us because we couldn't get - there were things about it that made us think it was the Pawell, but it wasn't ideal.
The data-driven process of elimination
Chris explains the elimination thought process, using Spire AIS data and photography, that led to being able to prove the Pawell was indeed in Berdyansk.
- So that's actually where Spire's clever data came in, basically, because we knew, from the photograph, how long it was, and we knew how wide it was, right? Those are two things we could definitively say - we knew it's between this length and this length, and it's so wide. And we also knew wherever the ship was, it didn't have its AIS on.
So we were able to do something quite sneaky with the Spire data, which is, we asked Spire to help us by identifying any ship that had been basically in the neighbourhood - the whole of the Sea of Azov or South of the Kerch Strait, in the previous month, which met those dimensions, right? That was about, I think, 35, 40 ships that met those criteria. And then we were able to say - "hang on a minute, of you, 35 to 40 ships, candidate ships being in that area, how many of you had your AIS on at some point that disqualifies you potentially from being that ship?". And that got us down to three ships.
So one of them, the Rayyan, was in Romania at the time, so it would have to have really steamed at about 20 knots to get - which is, I can tell you, not plausible - to get in and out in time. Another one was called the Nadezhda, and the Nadhezda, we're pretty confident, was in Sevastopol at the time, so it was loading up with grain - another occupied Ukrainian port. And the third one was a ship called the Pawell, and the Pawell, of the things that were left was the only one left, and that was really important to us because it gave us confidence that we hadn't missed some ship coming down from Rostov, or some ship coming down from another angle.
So what was so important about what Spire was able to do was two things: the first is, because of the satellite coverage of the Black Sea, it gave us confidence that we hadn't just missed some ship that was pottering around just out of range of a Terrestrial AIS receiver. It's a simple thing, actually, but basically almost no one else could do it - being able to say "can you tell me which ships were within this area, over this, for like a month, in this polygon and this area of sea" is a surprisingly difficult task for most providers and Spire are able to do that.
That combination, the ability to ask this sophisticated complicated historical query on the database is really important, and it let us, as I say, narrow down. Basically - there's actually really only two ships, the Nadezhda and the Pawell, and the Nadezhda was in Crimea at the time - and the fact that the Nadezhda was also the wrong colour, I should also point out. Whatever this ship was, in Berdyansk, if it wasn't the Pawell, it's blue - like the Pawell.
And so, that was how we were able to use Spire to piece together this thing, and it gave us confidence to say - rather than saying "oh yeah, well, there were these two accounts of where the grain came from", and then it was to say, "this is stolen Ukrainian grain, and you know what, they cooked up new paperwork for us in all likelihood". That's by far the likeliest account of what's going on here.
The sources of the story
Chris backtracks in time and explains how the original story came to be, including the original tip around the Pawell being in Berdyansk.
- (It was) really through the process of elimination that you were able to confirm the story and ultimately feel comfortable with going forward with publishing it. I'm curious as to what alerts, or what kind of system are you using to even alert you that this was a possibility, that this could be happening. Are you sorting through port data, or ship data? You mentioned earlier about being able to comb through various amounts of shipping records and things like that, but what first alerted you that there's something going on here?
- The first we heard was, someone said to us, "there's a ship in Berdyansk", which is rare, and it's this combination of human intelligence and then this sort of data-driven stuff. So someone said to was "yeah there's a ship in Berdyansk, and it's filling with grain" and it's come from the fact that the person selling the grain - this is quite interesting - the person selling the grain is basically a state-owned, Russian entity.
So this is not some oligarch making money out of the occupation of Ukraine, this is Ukrainian goods being looted, stolen, sold and the money going back to pay for the occupation of Ukraine. That was our first tip this is going on, and then we sort of watched the ship, and we, at that point, had been told "yeah it's this ship, the Pawell", and Ukrainian activists have told us, subsequently, they sort of lost sight of it, because it's normally apparently running gypsum into Sevastopol, that's its normal trade. It's in their view a sort of serial offender on calling into occupied ports, but - yeah, we waited for it, and then it sort of turned up, we saw it turn up in the Kerch Strait, wait around for a few weeks, and then it headed South to Turkey where it claimed to have come from Kavkaz.
Closing up the story
Chris explains how they put the finishing touches on the story, including two different strokes of luck.
- So really, it feels like this sort of a combination of the journalist, the tipsters that are on the ground sending you this information, and then queueing it up to you and then it's up to you and the FT team to really keep your eye on it and move the investigations sort of further. Were there any moments where you felt like it was going to be a dead end?
- No, the worry was always going to be, we're going to have to write a story that said "well, on the one hand, maybe it's Russian grain and Ukraine are forging documents, or on the other hand maybe it's Russians", which would be very unsatisfying. And also, wouldn't tell us anything - if you're a reader, "well hang on a minute, so you're telling me someone's lying, that's not helpful, tell me who is, give me some more evidence".
We did have quite a funny thing, where we didn't use Spire, we were on the verge of it, but I spotted - so we have a guy in northern Turkey visit the shoreline where the Pawell was moored, because actually the Ukrainians managed to put about that this was Ukrainian grain, among Turkish spiers, and they really struggled to sell it. So actually it was moored, and unsold, just off the Turkish coast for ages, for weeks, hanging around. And we got a guy to go over to take a photo of it, he sent a drone up, from the shoreline, and sent it out to sea and took a photo of it pottering around at sea.
And the thing we were sort of struck by was we think it got damaged during the journey. We noticed that the covers on top of the hold had changed colour, or rather some of them had, so the middle of the ship had an enormous red stripe - it's a blue ship, normally, and on the way up it seemed to be a blue ship, but actually we think, it's possible, that at some point during its journey it may have gotten damaged because it acquires this red stripe, they've had to change the hold covers. Sort of odd, fine. But then the ship disappeared, turned off its AIS, and then, about a week later, it turned on its AIS and it was heading West across the Black Sea, so it deposited - we could see its draught, we could see it sold its load, and it was somewhere in the Black Sea.
So I was like - ok, so we've got to try to complete the story, it'd be nice to know where they eventually get rid of this load, and I'll start in Georgia, it's very unlikely it'd go to Georgia, but that was the trajectory, and then I started moving around sort of the Turkish coast, and I spotted, on a very blurry photo, a blue ship with a red stripe on the top, and so this damage to the ship made me think - actually I think that might be it, I measured up - it was the worst photo, it was a really terrible photo, but I measured that up, and I thought "yeah it could be", and then I thought "ok, I'll get in touch with Spire again, and we'll do the same thing again", right? We'll work out how many ships of this dimension are in the neighbourhood who could conceivably have done it. And I mentioned it to one of my colleagues, and she said "Oh yeah, we should do that".
So I mentioned this to Laura, Laura went on the port's Facebook page, and it turns out that the port authorities just photograph every ship coming in - so we didn't bother, because we had a photo of it sitting at the grain terminal, attached to the grain elevator - that's pretty definitive, we don't need to bother checking with Spire.
- Yeah, because really, all of these data sources coming together, to really formulate the story, it sounds fascinating.
- The photograph I identified, it was really - aerial photography is interesting, because you can get loads of information from a really terrible photograph. And so, for example I knew that this ship, whatever it was, it's a blue strip with a red stripe across the middle. Weird, right? Quite distinctive from the air. I know it's about 90 meters per 10 meters long by about 10 meters wide, right? Ok, that helps me narrow things down.
I could see, I looked up where it was in the port and I could see it standing at the grain elevator, you know, this is all data points, the point to it maybe being our ship, but nothing beats someone walking out with a camera and putting it on Facebook.
Dark shipping in order to conduct illicit activities is common - but Chris goes into how that can lead to non-cohesive stories that can be debunked by facts and data. He also talks about repeating offender ships and how Turkey is challenged by dark vessel activities.
- You had mentioned the ship had turned off their AIS data for 5 days, and typically when ships do this, it's probably to conduct illicit activities. Were you surprised at how, I guess, bold they are with this kind of strategy? With turning off a simple tracking data?
- So there are good reasons to turn off your AIS in the Black Sea, right? In that it is a warzone. We can all think of ways and times when that might be appropriate, but one of the things about it is that when we spoke to the ship's consignee about it - the ship's owner deferred all questions onto him, or let him speak to them all, I think the ship's owner didn't reply to us at all, but we know that they spoke to the consignee about it - the ship's consignee said to us, "well the reason why we didn't have the AIS on for 4 days, 22 hours was that it was standing still, and you don't leave your AIS on when you're standing still", he claimed.
I have to say, what was all about it was, it was basically standing still for a bit before, and a bit after, and it had its AIS on, also the case that it moved quite a long way between when it turned its AIS off and turned it on. He later claimed that they'd actually visited another Russian port, and so his story went from "when we were standing still" to "we were actually in a different port, the reason why you can't see it on the photographs in Kerch Strait at that point was because we were in this port over here". You think, "hang on a minute, I thought you had it off because you were standing still, now you had it off because you were going to another port? You're really going to have to pick a lane on these lines here".
When you do this sort of exercise, the names that come up as ships that have turned off the AIS is suspiciously always the same ships, like I think it's the same - like a really familiar ground. So the Nadezhda, the ship that was in Crimea at the same time, is a name that's really familiar. I was like "oh yeah, our pal, I know what that looks like from the air when I need to look it up", they come up all the time, you know, they're repeat offenders who do the stuff, and they're all like Syrian or Russian ships.
They are dealing either with small Turkish ports on the North coast of Turkey who are getting - it has to be said, to be fair to them - better about turning away dodgy shipments, and tougher on ships with incomplete AIS records. Or they go to Syria, right? And they stay out, if you like, of the Western financial system. These are people that, as far as they're concerned, there are no sanctions, they are operating in a world where as long as the Bosphorus is open to them they don't care.
And actually there's an alternate, parallel universe where if Turkey was a bit softer on AIS stuff, and was so insistent that people turn on their AIS, like on the Bosphorus, for example, and Greece going to the islands, on the other side of the Bosphorus, we wouldn't know about this stuff at all. They'd never have to turn on their AIS, it's there only because they're winding through other people's territorial waters and through busy shiplanes that they do it. We do actually know of cases where they've gone through the Bosphorus with their AIS off which - it must be amazing, like - how?
Global consequences of smuggling
Chris explains the consequences of illegal smuggling, as well as how Syrian strategy around grain might become clearer in the near future.
- With the AIS data and with this particular area of the Globe just going through so much turmoil, what kind of consequences happen when a region like this, that's responsible for, you know, grain for a good majority of the world, what kind of consequences come from, I guess, smuggling expeditions like this? What kind of consequences globally does this result in?
- So the first thing was this huge spike in - the war itself led to another spike in food prices for grains, pulses, lentils, everything shot up, and the real poison of this was Russia started to find it much more profitable to export grain. Great! So it was able to steal and export even more profitably than before.
It also is going to have - and it's really hard to see inside the stuff, because this is all black economy stuff - but we also note that they're shipping large sums to Syria, and Syria has a pre-existing and long-standing contract to receive grain from the Crimean ports, which the Russians are very proud of and publicised prior to the war. But we think they gave in on that, and it may be that part of the story here is that basically they are supporting Russia as part of its allied States by giving them ready access to grain, which they can sell on.
We will see whether what they've been doing is refilling their silos for the winter and it's all for domestic consumption, or whether they are trying to become an entrepôt, and there are people in Turkey who believe that Syria is trying to re-establish itself in the centre of the milling trade.
Combining humans and data
Data is important, but it is impossible to tell the story without humans making sense of it and keeping an eye on the ground.
- And so shipping-wise this is probably - from a shipping perspective and also from a story perspective - is it safe to say that this is an area of the Globe that you're keeping a closer eye on, using these various different data points? Or is it really driven by the people on the ground plus the data points?
- So I think the thing where we can add value, and where we can piece things together, is that combination. So it's like having access to the people who can say - you know, being told, that ship over there is in, at the moment, and it doesn't have an AIS pinger - that's really important to piece together the story.
It's also worth noting that, at Port Taman, which is right on the Kerch Strait, is an enormous coal terminal. That's all sectioned by the EU. At Mariupol - you might remember the terrible, I mean, ferocious defence of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol where defenders were crouched in bunkers underneath the steel plant. Well that steel plant produces a huge amount of steel, and it's been stolen, it's all ben robbed, and - I haven't checked recently, it was being stolen the last time I looked - we think it's been taken back up to Rostov-on-Don, where it is going to have its distinguishing marks cut off and being sold as Russian, and these are tens of thousands of tons of steel. Russian coal is indeed sanctioned by the EU, but stolen steel is sort of double bad.
So we've got lots of things that can come through the Black Sea that we have to keep an eye on, we've sort of lucky, if that's the right word, that Russia is surrounded by these pinchpoints, so the Baltic in the North, and the Black Sea both have these natural pinchpoints that mean they have to be observed, it's very difficult to run the gauntlet. As I say, it does happen, we have found illicit grain ships running without AIS through the Bosphorus, in fact, without AIS at all their whole journey, from Crimea all the way to Lybia.
Other global stories and the Nordstream explosions
Chris indicates that smuggling goes beyond Russia and explains the intricacies around the Nordstream explosions - including why AIS is fundamental to tell the story more reliably.
- Is this exclusive to only the Russian and Ukrainian surrounding territories, or are these issues happening all over the Globe? Are you covering any other stories or paying attention to any other areas around the globe?
- Yeah, there's a very healthy smuggling trade around Iran obviously, around Venezuela, and we're keeping an eye on how the trade flows from Russia are diverted and move around in the next months, as the sanctions environment basically - as the dial continues to turn up on Russia over the next few months. Russia itself, the routes to India are really important too, we're seeing lots of traffic that way which is a consequence of the war and of the sanctions environment, so it's already itself spilling out into other things, but we're interested more broadly, and there are intrinsically and permanently interesting places around the world for some of this stuff. Like North Korea is the obvious place, like what's happening with their smuggling operations, it's a really interesting, strange area of the world, and actually it's really changing at the moment in terms of what we can and can't do.
So actually to give you another war-related example: a few weeks ago, you might remember the Nordstream pipelines, the explosions in the Nordstream pipelines. And so I did what a lot of us did, went and looked to see if there were any ships that had visited the pipelines, and we did not use Spire's coverage - this predates our current relationship -, we used one of your competitors, and so did basically all news organizations, and we couldn't find any ships that had made the journey. And in fact there were lots of people who started saying "well, hang on a minute, this ship had its AIS off for ages". And it turns out that it didn't, it's just that the middle of the Baltic is a black hole for Terrestrial AIS.
And then a Swedish publication spotted there actually had been a Swedish warship that had visited all of the sites of the explosion about a week before the explosion, and then it had turned tail and ran at speed to Kaliningrad, the Russian port on the Baltic. And so there are three explanations as to why this might be, the first is just coincidence, the second is, the Swedish did this, which is quite unlikely...
- Yeah, it's an unlikely candidate for this. The third is, they were tracking a Russian submarine and the reason they raced off to Kaliningrad is, they weren't going to the pipeline, they heard something and went to each of these spaces because they were tracing a submarine, and they steamed off to Kaliningrad at the end of all of this because that's where the submarine pens are, that is a Russian submarine base.
And so the Swedish papers were able to to get this because they had good AIS coverage over the Baltic and no one else did, and I have checked, and if we had used Spire at the time, we would have found that too, we would have spotted that. These black holes, you don't kind of know they exist until they're quite important.
So, a few years ago the satellite coverage would've been much much lousier, there would have been more of those black holes where we wouldn't be able to see what's going on, the second big thing is satellite photography stuff, which is - the combination of satellite photography with maritime AIS data is really powerful, not least because actually, when people are spoofing AIS signals, and they are messing around with AIS signals, the way you check is you go off and you look it up on the camera.
I don't know if you recall, the Russians have gone through a period of occasionally spoofing the movement of NATO ships - we assume it was the Russians doing this - and it was going and looking on the satellite photos in proving that there was no one there, where they claim they were, that's how that was that was uncovered.
But also, the ability to sort of track in the holes, when ships go dark, is going to be really powerful and important, and that will get stronger as the satellite constellations for photography get bigger and more frequent. So, one of the things that is going to happen in the coming years is more satellite photography at higher frequency, and already there are people like BlackSky who can do returns, do return trips to take multiple photographs in quick succession. So if you imagine in a scenario where we think this ship is in Berdyansk, and we think it is Pawell, we might be able to say "can you go and check them out for us, and take say a series of 12 photographs every day, and doing that will give you a course and a speed, and then we can say "hang on a minute. We know from the course and the speed here that whatever the ship was, it was definitely where you were standing, you know, 6 hours ago, so we we think that's you" that stuff will become much more easy, and much firmer foundations for doing this stuff.
And so actually it should mean that we can have securer, safer seas. The other thing, the other stuff like fisheries, and sea dumping as well, things like that, I think we'll be able to pursue with much greater vigour, because that's like - deep sea stuff is like the wild west, right? That's where it's easier to switch off your AIS and disappear away from - when you're not getting to the Bosphorus, it's pretty, pretty simple to go dark.
The challenges of data-driven journalism
Chris dives into the intricacies around data, including challenges around data spoofing.
- Yeah, it's pretty fascinating, sort of the modern-day piracy that goes on, out in the middle of the oceans where you think no one's paying attention to, but now with access to AIS data, and satellite imagery and things like that, it really feels like it all sort of comes together and helps you, with your job, in to find these stories and to tell these stories. Now, with you being a journalist for so long, do you find that technology and these data sources is making your job easier, or more challenging, or kind of both?
- Both, for sure, it's really exciting, and one of the challenges for reporters is to stay on top of these developments and how it can work, like, there are no silver bullets, and everything comes from combining different sources of data. That's where our competitive advantages are as reporters, so our ability to say "we don't, know let's send someone out and talk to someone in a dock", and pair that with this data is where we can sort of crack codes. What's great about AIS is it's kind of this nice, objective, neutral source, it's a GPS bearing, and other bits and bobs attached to it. We know it can be faked, and I think half waiting for more sophisticated spoofing and faking to come along too - maybe around receivers, as well.
- Oh that's interesting.
- Like, do we think that - you know, the Kerch Strait we know about, for the most part, for most people because there's a big terrestrial station in the port of Kerch itself. Do we trust it? It's ran by the Russian state. You know, what can people do, and when we're getting down to Satellite is removing all of the layers of people to turn things off and turn them on again or mess with the receivers would be really valuable.
- Is there a way for you to sort of verify that the data that you're working with is actually trustworthy? Is is having these different sources and being able to have somebody on the ground to verify?
- Basically, how do you know your data is legit?
- Exactly, and it's going to get more and more of a challenge, as the coverage of AIS improves, the satellite coverage improves, as you get more satellite photography. It will be harder to fake up some of this stuff but the stories about this stuff are almost always about what's on the ship and you sending it, and who is buying it, and this is quite a rare thing, right? Where the story is, you went to the left-hand side, to the Sea of Azov, you are a criminal; rather than the right hand side which is fine. Right? From a journalist point of view, that makes things really easy.
But for the most part, you still actually - most stories are still going to need someone to tell you "actually, this ship here? We think it's full of chips that are going to the Russian military", or "we think this is full of stolen coal from Donetsk", or "we think this is full of, you know, whatever". This is the challenge, you're still going to need normal, conventional human intelligence sources to do lots of the digging on that stuff, even if we can then - it's harder to hide things at sea if ports are still murky places.
A hybrid approach to storytelling
In this section, Chris reinforces how using data to prove specific points is crucial, and how it is easy to get the focus of stories lost without strategy.
- You've made a career out of using data-driven storytelling techniques. Do you see more journalists taking this approach in the future, or is there still much room to be desired when it comes to that storytelling approach?
- Both, I think, it's definitely become much less weird to do what I do now, and every large newsroom these days has people who do this sort of thing - we are more commercially minded, we're more interested in, you know, commercial flows than other people because we're a business newspaper, but there are other people who - it's a common thing.
The thing I would be weary about, for our industry, is this stuff getting siloed, right? There's a real danger in, rather than asking "What is the question, what is the issue here that we need to solve?" So we had this thing, that we were like, we think there's something funny going in the Kerch Strait, and we were sort of puzzling over how to get to it. And then we worked out if we follow one shipment from Berdyansk we could unpick the whole thing. It's quite easy to drift in, like "I don't have an objective in mind, but I will tell the story" is the easy fall out of the dataset. So you end up reporting like "this many ships had made this journey" - fine, but it might not tell you very much and it may be new, but not very insightful.
And actually the challenge for journalists is to integrate the use of these new technologies with existing reporters, you have a much clearer sense of "here are the questions, here are the things we need to know, here are the things we don't understand and we need to run at", and there is a danger that you end up with some quixotic report, like very elaborate, beautifully illustrated reports about ship movements, but in the end of it you think "well, it's all very pretty, but I don't know what you've told me", and the way to go against that is to make sure that conventional journalists, as it were, are in the room, and I say "no, no, no, what you need to figure out is this, this is the question".
- So it's almost like a tool in your arsenal and not just the sole tool, that's where some of the dangers might exist in the future, but just using it to fuel your investigation.
- It's one source amongst many, and the things it will be at it's most powerful and at its best is when it's combined with other things. So the story of the Pawell, you can kind of tell that story like "hang on a minute, this ship disappears for 5 days, reappears full, and it maybe went to Berdyansk because of the ship of the right size", you can get that off the satellite photos and the AIS. But you can't go forward than that. First of all, you have to be quite tentative, because you don't have the paperwork that proves it, and humans give you the paperwork to prove it that sort of make the whole thing definitive.
- It's almost like for journalists there is still a level of expectation that you have to have feet on the ground and talking to people and then using data to sort of confirm your suspicions. Is that a safe assumption?
- So, some of the things that annoy me as a data reporter - one of the things is people treating data as a sort of magical thing, that will automatically necessarily reveal new stuff, but actually it's just like any other source out, you know, you go to a bar and meet someone well connected, but they may not tell you anything, and they may not know anything. You have to see how you do, and if you don't treat it like that, it's just one source in your arsenal, one part of your tool kit.
You end up with these slightly - you can see them in lots of newspapers, hopefully not the FT, but lots of newspapers where people write these data stories that start off by telling you how much work they've done? So they like "we've combed through 96 million records, 64,000 data sets, da-da-da-da", and the big reveal at the end is someone you already knew was very rich is still very rich, you know, something really banal or boring, and it's because the stuff you can get usually from one thing, that you can reliably right up, is usual a bit rubbish, you actually need a variety of sources of information to get stuff.
The other thing is, if you're a pirate, right? Or a smuggler, you're aware of some of the stuff, you can hide from the AIS stuff by switching it off if you're at see, and you might, if you're really canny - if you're like the Russian, maybe, we think does this - they're canny about when they're overflight by satellite photography and they hide from it? Like we think they're careful about ship movements to avoid - 10:30 AM, each morning, the satellites go over, we think they're very careful about their movements around 10:30 AM - you could do that too.
But actually, it's really hard to do, remember to do both of those things and hide from the guy in the port, and hide from this person over there, and actually your lies will only turn to raffle the more sources of information we get about you.
Future stories to watch out for
Chris explains which stories we need to keep an eye in the next few months, especially around sanctions on Russia develop
- It's like what they say, if you want to be a good liar, you have to have a really good memory, and I think that that's still at the crux of how you are discovering these stories, it's kind of the scientific theory, but for journalism, wehere you have this hypothesis, and then it turns into a theory and then you use data in order to backup that theory and hopefully turns into a nuanced story that you're providing that insight into, in order to make it a good story using those data sources and then using still the feet on the ground, in talking to people, and bringing that story to life.
Now, for the rest 2022, and going into 2023, are you watching any stories around global shipping or anything like that?
- I think smuggling is going to be one of the big things, and it's not just looting stuff, it's sanctions, it's also not just exports from Russia but also imports, and there are things that are interesting at the moment, like there's been some stuff around shipments across the Caspian Sea into Russia from Iran.
But also, I think one of the puzzles that I and other people have been staring at, is about the flow of goods into Russia from the West, and from western countries where perhaps they shouldn't be going in - and some of this is about sanctions busting. But some of this is also about goods that aren't sanctioned that probably should be, and the are some interesting edge cases around things that aren't classified as military or dual use technologies, but they are, in reality. That's going to be a thing that's going to grow, I think, over the winter, as an issue as in - have we got the definitions on sanctions right?
Yeah and there also will just be more grain. I think the sophistication of the Russian operation built since 2014 in the Black Sea for moving grain from the occupied regions, we've kind of done a lot exposing how it works out, but actually it's still going and it's very troubling and significant factor in the world.
- Well Chris, this has been a fantastic conversation, really really fascinating deep dive in and insight into what's going on with some of the lesser-known parts of this war that has been so heavily publicised over in the last year. Where can folks follow more of your work, follow along the journey as the stories continue to develop?
- ft.com and if you're really keen, ft.com/chris-cook, which is my page, but there'll be more of this stuff, my colleague Polina Ivanova meticulously's been doing lots of stuff on the Russian economy.
I feel like I have to say a word about Yörük Işık as well who is a Turkish ship watcher who's been really hepful to us as well, he's the guy that went out with his drone and photographed it, so that we could spot the splash of red across the top of the Pawell. When we talk boots in the ground, actually, it's not just enough to have people, you actually need people who know their cargo vessels and that's Yörük Işık, he runs an operation called Bosphorus Observer that is - basically he spends his time worrying about whether Turkey's discharging its obligations to the world when it comes to running the Bosphorus.
- Fascinating stuff, it really is. It's sort of a new dawn for a lot of war coverage in general, having access to these different data sets and technology, but still having to rely on relationships and people who are experienced, people who are actually located in the region that you're doing the stories on.
So thank you so much to Chris for coming on "Maritime Means...", hopefully folks will follow more of your work, I know I will be, and thank you again. This was a really fascinating interview.
- Pleasure. Thank ever so much.
- You can follow Chris on his Financial Times page.