Five years ago, I was part of a small group of journalists from across the world attending the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC), who got together over a few glasses of wine to brainstorm a story we could collaborate on.
Collaboration was the new journalism buzzword and it was something we were all aware of as we sipped wine from polystyrene cups and brainstormed ideas in a classroom at Wits University in Johannesburg, where AIJC is held annually.
We were looking for an issue that was common to many countries, into which we could sink our teeth.
A few months earlier, the Panama Papers leak - still the biggest ever document leak at a massive 2.6TB - laid bare a system that enabled crime, corruption and other wrongdoing, all hidden by secretive offshore companies.
The documents were shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with a large number of media outlets and reporters across the globe, setting off a journalistic investigation and collaboration of unparalleled scale.
After lots of back-and-forth, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, a United States-based investigative journalist and journalism professor, suggested lotteries as an issue. It ticked all the boxes and soon after that evening back in 2016, our Gaming the Lottery investigation into lotteries worldwide was launched.
In South Africa, the first problem we encountered was accessing information about grants awarded by the National Lotteries Commission (NLC), a government entity charged with overseeing the Lottery and distributing funds from ticket sales to “good causes”.
The problem we faced was that even though the NLC published lists of grantees in its annual reports, the data was trapped inside years of PDFs. Not only that, but there was no uniformity in the NLC’s reporting. The naming of organisations that received grants often differed from year to year, with names sometimes spelled differently or abbreviated, we soon discovered.
Adi Eyal, then head of civic tech nonprofit Code4SA - now OpenUp - suggested scraping the, at the time, 16 years of data and making it machine-searchable using a free version of Tableau.
This freemium tool has led to more than 100 stories and the uncovering of fraud and corruption running into hundreds of millions of rands. Using the tool and other publicly available records of non profit organisations and non profit companies, as well as document leaks and tip-offs from whistleblowers, we have laid bare networks of corruption that have gorged on Lottery funding intended for “worthy causes”.
Our still ongoing investigation led to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last year issuing a proclamation for the Special Investigating Unit to probe alleged corruption in the National Lotteries Commission.
But we found that each year, as we added data of new grants, the tool was slowing down and becoming less and less responsive.
OpenUp has now built a new, faster and more robust tool with a grant from the UK-based Indigo Trust. Thanks to the grant, we have also been able to make improvements, which were not possible with the free tool, incorporating lessons we have learned over the course of our four-year-long investigation.
The next step is to do online webinars to teach both mainstream and community-based journalists how to use the tool and how to report on the Lottery. We hope this will help them move beyond the usual diet of media release-driven stories about big jackpots and winners that are often published.
What we learned is that the NLC is “as transparent as a toilet window” and if we hope to stop the rot it is important that more journalists shine a light on how the NLC allocates the between R1.5-and R2-billion that it doles out to “good causes” each year.