‘Boring’ data produces important stories about traffic fines and safety

by Chris Roper
Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

When Code for South Africa set out to analyze the data around municipal budgets and revenue from traffic fines, the conclusion was clear: certain municipalities in the country were making massively skewed revenue from traffic fines. This indicated they were using speed traps simply to make money, rather than as a road safety measure. The resulting story – that traffic fines are essential to the revenues of some municipalities in South Africa – resonated with readers, many of whom enjoy an antagonistic relationship with traffic police.

There’s a Twitter account with the unambiguous handle @PigSpotter, that has over 410,000 followers who contribute avidly to the account's stated purpose: "Let's help each other expose where cops are trapping & [where they] set up roadblocks daily." 

Sample tweets show just how much some motorists disrespect those tasked with keeping our roads safe:

In contrast to this colorful language, municipal financial reporting data is unexciting. Describing how he found the story of how traffic fines are used to swell the coffers of certain municipalities, Code for South Africa’s Adi Eyal says, “I was just being a data nerd, actually. Looking for the most boring data you can possibly find, and then looking for an interesting story in that data.”

The story Eyal found was a simple one, but with multiple ramifications. The lead takeaway was that some South African municipalities are using traffic fines to disproportionately boost their revenues. Looking at data from the financial year ending 2014, Eyal established that the national per capita revenue from fines is R65.20 [South African rands]. Concentrating on major national arteries, like the N1 from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Eyal discovered municipalities that earn as much as 40 times the national per capita average from traffic fines. Ubuntu municipality, for example, was earning R2,821.01 per capita annually — 44 times the national average.

The challenge then became helping partner media organizations find the right editorial direction. Code for Africa has embedded an ICFJ Knight Fellow, Ray Joseph, with Code for South Africa. His task is to help convert data visualizations into compelling stories. As Joseph often bemoans, sometimes newsrooms fail to see the potential of using data tools to mine for stories. He made sure that this wouldn’t happen with the enticing data visualizations of the traffic fines, and worked closely with the chosen media partner.

TimesLive, the news organization that Code for South Africa partnered with to create content around the data, took the story in a populist direction: "The small municipality has a population of only 18,601 people, according to the 2011 census. Last year, 49 percent of its revenue came from speeding fines: the R18.5 million the municipality sought in service charges and the R2.5 million it sought in property taxes is nothing compared to the R52 million it issued in traffic fines that year. Not bad for a municipal area where, according to the national census, only one in four residents has access to a car."

The headline for that story was "Ubuntu: Where it is all fine, fine, fine."

Other stories carried equally antagonistic headlines, such as "Drive safely - bankrupt a broke municipality," and Code for South Africa’s own "Are traffic fines highway robbery?"

The timing of the stories’ release was well judged, coinciding as it did with South Africans’ annual pilgrimage across the country to holiday destinations. The stories were accompanied by data visualizations showing the hotspots on the major national roads.

So far, however, all we have is journalism that panders to a specific societal stereotype: the belief by many that speed traps have more to do with greed than with road safety. What Code for South Africa’s data crunching showed, as Eyal says, is that “There’s something systemic wrong here.

"Some municipalities see the N1 as a resource they can milk, and the story isn’t so much that they’re fining people, but that a municipality like Ubuntu is essentially bankrupt: 49 percent of the municipality's revenue comes from fines. That's more than rates, electricity, water, refuse removal and sewage combined. It is a major source of income for the municipality."

The story waiting to be teased out of the data is that, if traffic fines are a major source of a municipality’s revenue, there is no incentive to actually stop people speeding, which would reduce accidents.

New data for 2015 has just been released, and the interesting question now is going to be how much the budget line for fines has increased and what this says about the overall budgets, the state of municipalities’ finances and the implications for traffic safety in the country.

Chris Roper is a data editor at Code for Africa. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Andreas Levers.