Project description

In 2018, a little girl died in a dilapidated pit latrine at her school in a rural part of South Africa. She was five years old. In 2014, a five-year-old boy met the same horrible fate. These two incidents, although years apart and in different areas of the country, are indicative of a serious problem in South Africa’s schools. We used data to show the extent of the pit latrine problem.

We found that even though a law passed in 2013 stated that plain pit latrines are not allowed in schools, and that there was a deadline to remove them by 29 November 2016, in March 2018, one in every three public schools in South Africa still had pit toilets, affecting well over half a million children. Two things became clear: firstly, reliable official data on the state of school sanitation is not readily available, despite the fact that the law says the government should collect this data and make it public, and, secondly, officials had been dragging their heels in improving sanitation at schools, particularly those in poor, rural areas, to the extent that they were on track to miss their deadline to eradicate plain pit toilets by an astonishing 21 years.

The second story in the series homed in on one province. It was commissioned by a non-profit organisation, Section27, which collected data on the sanitation situation at 86 schools in Limpopo province. We compared data collected by Section27 with official data requested by the Limpopo High Court (which was provided in the form of a scan of a really bad photocopy of a spreadsheet) and all the other data sets we managed to collect about school sanitation in the province. We found that official data for the province is totally inconsistent and underlines the problem that if the government can’t measure the real extent of the sanitation problem, they can’t budget properly and some schools simply get forgotten. We found that at least 19 schools with plain pit latrines in Limpopo had been forgotten.

Our challenge was to tell stories that are very number heavy in a compelling way that would drive home the extent of the pit latrine problem and the impact poor data collection and planning has on ordinary South Africans. We had to keep it simple because at least two-thirds of our audience accesses the internet on mobile phones and many cannot afford to use a lot of data. So for “SA’s deadly pit toilets”, we chose static maps to illustrate scale and opted to distil the story down to a series of short captions. We included some clickable buttons for people who wanted more information. For people who weren’t concerned with data usage, we included a link to an interactive map.

For the second story in the series “The school toilets Limpopo forgot”, we gave the data a human face. Section27’s researchers had taken photographs of school toilets and had commissioned videos, we were able to include some of these in the story as well as quotes from interviews with affected schoolchildren.

What makes this project innovative?

Our focus was to tell data stories well for people to read on mobile phones without using huge amounts of data. We believe this is important in countries where many people do not have access to cheap, fast internet. It was the first time that anyone had told a completely visual story about pit toilets in South Africa. Typically the stories around pit toilets focus on single tragic cases but the stories we produced exposed the extent of the problem in a quantitative way as well as looking at the impact that pit toilets, or lack of pit toilets, have on school learners.

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

Our first pit toilet story received a lot of attention, despite not being co-published by a mainstream media outlet. This was partly because of timing, it coincided with the president calling for an audit of school sanitation and urgent action to remove unsafe sanitation from schools. It was widely shared on social media. We are more interested in how useful people have found our work, than how many times the stories have been clicked on. In that regard, a number of people, mainly in NGOs, have told us they use both of the stories in presentations because of the way they illustrate visually and impactfully the extent of the sanitation crisis in South Africa’s schools. Last year, for the first time ever, data journalism won a major South African journalism award (Overall Vodacom Journalist of the Year 2018), thanks in large part to the “SA’s Deadly School Toilets” story. That story and the data in it has been referred to and linked to by other journalists writing on the subject. Our second story “The School Toilets Limpopo Forgot”, commissioned by NGO Section27, has resulted in a number of new data sets being made publicly available.

Source and methodology

We used official data sets from national and provincial departments of education that are publicly available because these are the basis of decision-making by officials and are also widely cited. For the “SA’s Deadly Pit Toilets” story we used the six data sources listed below: • National Education Infrastructure Management reports, 2011 and January 2018, Department of Basic Education. • Data on state of school sanitation 22 March 2018, in table embedded in media statement of Department of Basic Education • National School Masterlist 2017, Department of Basic Education • List of schools with pit latrines only and no sanitation in December 2016, spreadsheet as appendix to response to parliamentary question, February 2017, Department of Basic Education. • Limpopo Education Department Infrastructure Norms and Standards Report, 28 November 2016 The key data set was the Appendix that listed the individual schools with pit toilets and no sanitation from December 2016 – this type of data is rare, it is usually in the form of total number of schools in each province. We merged this data set with the latest available national school masterlist so we could check the school names and get their GPS coordinates and the number of learners. Generally, questions asked of education departments about data are not answered, so for verification, we usually have to rely on cross-checking multiple data sets and Google Earth or maps for GPS coordinates. The analysis in this story was relatively simple so most of it was done using Google Sheets, the initial mapping and dataset merging was done using Carto DB, then refined with Leaflet and Sketch. Other visualisations were done using D3 For “The School Toilets Limpopo Forgot” story, all the data sets and methodology can be found here: There were two main data sets: the first was data collected by NGO Section27, which we cleaned and turned into csv’s for analysis in R. The second principal dataset was the audit of school sanitation in Limpopo compiled for the Limpopo High Court in August 2018 as part of a judgment. The only copy we could obtain was a scan of a really bad photocopy of a spreadsheet. Converting this into a csv was a largely manual process that involved using the Limpopo school masterlist as a reference and marking each school that appeared in the court document on the masterlist. The analysis was done using R. The visualisations were done with D3.

Technologies Used

Data for the projects was cleaned, sorted and analysed using Excel, Google Sheets and R. The final stories were produced in HTML. Animations for the stories were produced in two different ways: For desktop browsers the animations were mostly produced using the D3 Javascript library. For mobile devices the animations were produced using a series of static images with Javascript providing the transitions. This was done in order to keep the bandwidth demands on mobile devices to a minimum.

Project members

Alastair Otter and Laura Grant


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