Data, Digging & Doggedness: Investigating the National Lottery Commission

It all started in a lecture hall when about a dozen investigative journalists came together to talk shop and drink wine out of polystyrene cups someone had managed to scrounge up at the last minute.

It was the 2016 African Investigative Journalism Conference and this group of hungry reporters were looking for a story that was broad enough to be relevant across different countries. At the time, we had no idea how big a story this would become. 

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, an American journalist and university professor had been using the lottery as a data journalism training aid, and had previously investigated lotteries in the U.S, Canada and New Zealand. He threw out the idea of looking into lotteries around the world because although the rules, how it works and who runs it changes from country-to-country, the sometimes nefarious inner workings of the larger industry is certainly a universal subject. It was here, almost four years ago, that Gaming the Lottery was born. 

A few OpenUppers were there and they, along with the rest of the group, took the suggestion and ran with it. Investigating the Lottery was perfectly aligned to OpenUp's Corporate Data project, which aimed to make previously inaccessible data about public and private entities available to all. The very nature of the project was suited to experimenting with data and investigative journalism, and would allow us to develop a community around data. 

After just weeks of identifying, scraping, cleaning and analysing the data, we already had a handful of stories to pursue. The National Lottery Commission (NLC) releases its annual report - which usually includes a list of organisations they had awarded grants to and the amount of money awarded - on their website and at the time (2017), had funded hundreds of organisations around the country with a total of R24-billion. 

"We introduced transparency into an opaque system that involved billions of rands by making it keyword searchable."  - Raymond Joseph, SA Team Lead

One of the first stories we came across while exploring the data was a grant upwards of R50-million that had been meant for a Limpopo school, but was used to build boreholes instead. OpenUp's Adi Eyal, the South Africa team lead Ray Joseph and some of the organisation's data journalists spent the afternoon tracing the owner of the school, his wife and all of their failed businesses.

We decided to make the data available for anyone to see, because although this was public information, checking through the printed lists of grants is time consuming and not easy, so people, including journalists, ever do so. There were also issues with the way individual grants were recorded and sometimes, grants to a single organisation may be listed under several different names. For example, South Africa's Olympic body has received lottery funding as SASCOC, South African Confederation of Olympics Committee, SA Sports Confederation of Olympics Committee and SA Sports Confederation of Olympic Comm. It also received grants under its former name, NOCSA, as well as National Olympics Committee of South Africa and National Olympics Committee. Without a searchable tool, it would be almost impossible to know the actual amounts. 

Since making this data available via the tool, the collective of journalists working tirelessly on this investigation have published 101 stories in South Africa, exposing significant financial misconduct and mismanagement by the Lottery. The biggest achievement to date is that as of 2020, the government is investigating some of the issues brought to light by this project and the community driving it. 

“Freedom of expression matters not just because it means the media can help hold the powerful accountable, it matters because it is central to democracy." - William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa

Not only this, but regulations in the Lotteries Act that the NLC has used to hide from accusations of fraud and corruption are facing a constitutional challenge in court

We have also worked with community journalists to do stories in their areas, which has resulted in countless hours of firsthand experience, training and learning lots of new skills. 

These stories have also sparked global attention, earned local, regional and national recognition in the U.S and South Africa, and have been presented at international conferences. It also became the basis for the formation of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ)

Building and growing a community

Gaming the Lottery is a community of data and investigative journalists, researchers, developers, academics, creatives and whistleblowers. It involves around 40 people from 10 different countries working in journalism and civic tech organisations in Africa, Europe and the U.S. All of the stories published thus far were born from datasets that had previously received no meaningful scrutiny, and has over time become one of the most comprehensive data-driven investigations. 

The diversity of stories highlights the importance of teamwork, collaboration and using a globally-reaching investigation to focus on local issues. The South African part of Gaming the Lottery tells stories about fraud and corruption across the country, shedding light on issues around dignity, arts and culture, nepotism, sports, education and taking advantage of the poor.  

We strived for diversity in order to make it easy for anyone to join the discussion, by pursuing further investigation into these and other issues. 

“Don't underestimate the available datasets. The NLC believe we hacked their system because of our deep knowledge of their grants - they couldn't believe we simply used their annual reports." - Adi Eyal, director of OpenUp

At the heart of it all is a story about how some basic digging led to uncovering a set of explosive stories and in doing so, created an entire community. 

If we get just a handful of people who decide to use the tool and conduct investigations of their own, then we have succeeded in sharing the message that the user and shared-interest communities are integral to driving data usage forward. This investigation and those that follow are proof of that success. 

For the past year, CCIJ in collaboration with many others, including OpenUp, have been investigating access to water around the world. H2o Fail began much like Gaming the Lottery did. After presenting at the 2017 Global Investigative Journalism Conference, an opportunity to develop things into an organisation arose and during this process, the team discussed what our next project should be. At the time, Cape Town was experiencing a drought and facing Day Zero, which we took as a sign to pursue global water issues. 

Investigations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, the U.S, Nigeria and Chile have all been published, with many more to come over the next few months. Again, like Gaming the Lottery, H2o Fail is an ongoing project that this community will continue to drive forward for as long as there are stories to tell. 

'Go forth and dig'

There is still a lot to be said and done with the Lottery investigation. For starters, we will continue to update the data each year. After months of ducking and diving, the NLC gave into growing pressure and released details of Lottery grants it had refused to make public. For 18 years, they have included the details of grants in its annual report, until last year when it failed to publish them, citing a section of the Lotteries Act that it said forbade it from releasing this information. The decision to release the information came after an abrupt about-turn by ANC members of Parliament’s Trade, Industry and Competition Committee, who had previously defended the NLC.

As always, we encourage anyone and everyone to explore the lottery tool. Using search and filter functions you can find out which organisations were funded by the NLC between 2002 and 2020. Grants fall under four different categories and are represented by different colours in the graphic: arts, culture and national heritage (orange); charities (red); miscellaneous (blue); sport and recreation (green); and unspecified (yellow). 

We've only told about 100 stories so far, but we can guarantee that there are hundreds more hidden in plain sight within this dataset. For example, was the R50-million we mentioned earlier really used for boreholes and if so, where are they? Are there any instances of corporate malfeasance? What about the amount of money that was allocated but categorised as "unspecified"? - there's more than R2-billion of that and we'd love to know how it was used. And how about the NLC Covid-19 relief fund? Even though we have the list presented to Parliament, it's incomplete, so where is that missing information? These are just a handful of stories that members of the team have suggested. Like we said, there are lots more so go forth and dig.

Share this post:

It all started in a lecture hall when about a dozen investigative journalists came together to talk shop and drink wine out of polystyrene cups someone had managed to scrounge up at the last minute.

It was the 2016 African Investigative Journalism Conference and this group of hungry reporters were looking for a story that was broad enough to be relevant across different countries. At the time, we had no idea how big a story this would become. 

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, an American journalist and university professor had been using the lottery as a data journalism training aid, and had previously investigated lotteries in the U.S, Canada and New Zealand. He threw out the idea of looking into lotteries around the world because although the rules, how it works and who runs it changes from country-to-country, the sometimes nefarious inner workings of the larger industry is certainly a universal subject. It was here, almost four years ago, that Gaming the Lottery was born. 

A few OpenUppers were there and they, along with the rest of the group, took the suggestion and ran with it. Investigating the Lottery was perfectly aligned to OpenUp's Corporate Data project, which aimed to make previously inaccessible data about public and private entities available to all. The very nature of the project was suited to experimenting with data and investigative journalism, and would allow us to develop a community around data. 

After just weeks of identifying, scraping, cleaning and analysing the data, we already had a handful of stories to pursue. The National Lottery Commission (NLC) releases its annual report - which usually includes a list of organisations they had awarded grants to and the amount of money awarded - on their website and at the time (2017), had funded hundreds of organisations around the country with a total of R24-billion. 

"We introduced transparency into an opaque system that involved billions of rands by making it keyword searchable."  - Raymond Joseph, SA Team Lead

One of the first stories we came across while exploring the data was a grant upwards of R50-million that had been meant for a Limpopo school, but was used to build boreholes instead. OpenUp's Adi Eyal, the South Africa team lead Ray Joseph and some of the organisation's data journalists spent the afternoon tracing the owner of the school, his wife and all of their failed businesses.

We decided to make the data available for anyone to see, because although this was public information, checking through the printed lists of grants is time consuming and not easy, so people, including journalists, ever do so. There were also issues with the way individual grants were recorded and sometimes, grants to a single organisation may be listed under several different names. For example, South Africa's Olympic body has received lottery funding as SASCOC, South African Confederation of Olympics Committee, SA Sports Confederation of Olympics Committee and SA Sports Confederation of Olympic Comm. It also received grants under its former name, NOCSA, as well as National Olympics Committee of South Africa and National Olympics Committee. Without a searchable tool, it would be almost impossible to know the actual amounts. 

Since making this data available via the tool, the collective of journalists working tirelessly on this investigation have published 101 stories in South Africa, exposing significant financial misconduct and mismanagement by the Lottery. The biggest achievement to date is that as of 2020, the government is investigating some of the issues brought to light by this project and the community driving it. 

“Freedom of expression matters not just because it means the media can help hold the powerful accountable, it matters because it is central to democracy." - William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa

Not only this, but regulations in the Lotteries Act that the NLC has used to hide from accusations of fraud and corruption are facing a constitutional challenge in court

We have also worked with community journalists to do stories in their areas, which has resulted in countless hours of firsthand experience, training and learning lots of new skills. 

These stories have also sparked global attention, earned local, regional and national recognition in the U.S and South Africa, and have been presented at international conferences. It also became the basis for the formation of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ)

Building and growing a community

Gaming the Lottery is a community of data and investigative journalists, researchers, developers, academics, creatives and whistleblowers. It involves around 40 people from 10 different countries working in journalism and civic tech organisations in Africa, Europe and the U.S. All of the stories published thus far were born from datasets that had previously received no meaningful scrutiny, and has over time become one of the most comprehensive data-driven investigations. 

The diversity of stories highlights the importance of teamwork, collaboration and using a globally-reaching investigation to focus on local issues. The South African part of Gaming the Lottery tells stories about fraud and corruption across the country, shedding light on issues around dignity, arts and culture, nepotism, sports, education and taking advantage of the poor.  

We strived for diversity in order to make it easy for anyone to join the discussion, by pursuing further investigation into these and other issues. 

“Don't underestimate the available datasets. The NLC believe we hacked their system because of our deep knowledge of their grants - they couldn't believe we simply used their annual reports." - Adi Eyal, director of OpenUp

At the heart of it all is a story about how some basic digging led to uncovering a set of explosive stories and in doing so, created an entire community. 

If we get just a handful of people who decide to use the tool and conduct investigations of their own, then we have succeeded in sharing the message that the user and shared-interest communities are integral to driving data usage forward. This investigation and those that follow are proof of that success. 

For the past year, CCIJ in collaboration with many others, including OpenUp, have been investigating access to water around the world. H2o Fail began much like Gaming the Lottery did. After presenting at the 2017 Global Investigative Journalism Conference, an opportunity to develop things into an organisation arose and during this process, the team discussed what our next project should be. At the time, Cape Town was experiencing a drought and facing Day Zero, which we took as a sign to pursue global water issues. 

Investigations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, the U.S, Nigeria and Chile have all been published, with many more to come over the next few months. Again, like Gaming the Lottery, H2o Fail is an ongoing project that this community will continue to drive forward for as long as there are stories to tell. 

'Go forth and dig'

There is still a lot to be said and done with the Lottery investigation. For starters, we will continue to update the data each year. After months of ducking and diving, the NLC gave into growing pressure and released details of Lottery grants it had refused to make public. For 18 years, they have included the details of grants in its annual report, until last year when it failed to publish them, citing a section of the Lotteries Act that it said forbade it from releasing this information. The decision to release the information came after an abrupt about-turn by ANC members of Parliament’s Trade, Industry and Competition Committee, who had previously defended the NLC.

As always, we encourage anyone and everyone to explore the lottery tool. Using search and filter functions you can find out which organisations were funded by the NLC between 2002 and 2020. Grants fall under four different categories and are represented by different colours in the graphic: arts, culture and national heritage (orange); charities (red); miscellaneous (blue); sport and recreation (green); and unspecified (yellow). 

We've only told about 100 stories so far, but we can guarantee that there are hundreds more hidden in plain sight within this dataset. For example, was the R50-million we mentioned earlier really used for boreholes and if so, where are they? Are there any instances of corporate malfeasance? What about the amount of money that was allocated but categorised as "unspecified"? - there's more than R2-billion of that and we'd love to know how it was used. And how about the NLC Covid-19 relief fund? Even though we have the list presented to Parliament, it's incomplete, so where is that missing information? These are just a handful of stories that members of the team have suggested. Like we said, there are lots more so go forth and dig.

You might also like