If the opinion pollsters are right and another of South Africa’s mightiest metros fall to an opposition party at the local elections tomorrow, there’s a chance that you may be informed of the news by a robot or automated Tweet.

The local elections in South Africa will take about a week from start to finish: voting began yesterday for some citizens, and it’ll probably be Saturday by the time every last ballot is counted.

It’s taken a whole month, however, for the SABC to set up its enormous remote broadcasting unit at the Pretoria headquarters of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). By the time viewers, listeners and online browsers tune in on Wednesday night, they’ll be witnessing some of the smartest digital news coverage the country has ever seen and an online-first system that’s taken the best part of a year to put together.

Robo-writers

Head of digital news, Izak Minnaar, says that his team began to spec out the system they wanted for election night last September, although work began in earnest around the end of the year. He jokes that it was a relief when speculation about a May election didn’t prove true, as it’s given them time to build, stress test and practice something he’s particularly proud of.

The view from the presenters' desk on set at IEC HQ.
The view from the presenters’ desk on set at IEC HQ.

It begins outside, where two big outside broadcast vans will be responsible for transmitting TV news: one is operating as a remote control room for channels showing election broadcasts, while the other receives feeds from around 50 regional SABC stations and “digital media news gatherers” (DMNGs). The DMNGs range from reporters with smartphones to journalists using sophisticated radio backpacks for beaming back broadcast quality images.

At its heart, however, is a live feed of data from the IEC itself. This is an open API which the election body has made available too all publishers, and will also be used by News 24, eNCA and other outlets. The feed contains ward-by-ward results as soon as they are confirmed.

While rivals (especially eNCA) have led the way with pre-election opinion polls and reports of electoral violenceand the national broadcaster has spent the last few weeks making news rather than breaking it – it’s hard not to be impressed with the work SABC has put in for tomorrow night. Regardless of what you think of the corporation as a whole, the preparation and professionalism behind the scenes at IEC HQ is South African journalism at its best.

Digital revolution

The system built on top of that IEC feed will in turn push results to radio, TV and online channels simultaneously, and that data is being used in inventive ways. With it, Minnaar says that the broadcaster will able to use it to experiment with “robot journalism” for the first time: semi-prepared copy for news stories about areas held, tied or changed hands will be populated with details as soon as results come through from the IEC. The draft stories will then land immediately on the desks of editors ready to be tweaked and added to, depending on their importance, before publishing online or into on-screen tickers.

Looking out over the seating area for election observers.
Looking out over the seating area for election observers.

There’s also an automated Twitter feed set up to shout out results the second they come in – although Minnaar says that may not be deployed fully on the night, unless it’s 100% reliable.

Don’t think that alleviates the need for humans, though. The SABC’s presence at IEC HQ is enormous. Come Wednesday, there’ll be around 400 people working in the temporary production space, including data analysts, statisticians, production editors, reporters, graphic designers and – of course – the on-screen talent. Shifts for most last three hours at a time, and in addition to the teams here there’ll be a full complement of staff at Aukland Park as well as similar – albeit smaller – set-ups at IEC results centres around the country.

Online, onscreen

As I’m being given a tour of the TV set which overlooks the IEC’s set-up for observers, two well known anchors are being given a training session in front of a giant touchscreen. On the screen is a web browser that shows the SABC’s election website, and it’s the website that most interests me. While traditional election coverage using bespoke graphics and scripts will be used, Minnaar thinks that the touchscreen and web interface will be popular with the anchors as they break and analyse the big stories of the night.

Essentially, the web widgets are updated as soon as IEC numbers come through as well, so presenters will be using exactly the interactive graphics and widgets to break news about results to viewers, who can access manipulate the same data on their phone or laptop at home. It may not sound like much, but for a big TV news organisation that’s a fundamental shift in thinking.

The web widgets are fully interactive. Playing with the barcharts is especially fun.
The web widgets are fully interactive. Playing with the piecharts is especially fun.

The web widgets are designed to be as comprehensive as possible while remaining simple to use. So they’re divided into simple graphics showing results for geographical areas broken down by political parties, with historical results for regions and census data built in. Anticipating the most obvious questions, results can also be shown in tables, pie charts and ward graphs for questions like female candidates elected and by the results of historic contents too.

You can test the widgets now at SABC’s election site, although they’re currently populated only with historical data. Live results will start to come in from 8pm tomorrow, which is when the real things will be turned on.

Presenters will be able to use the touchscreen to pull in other information from around the web and show Twitter, Facebook or YouTube content live on air too, and there’s a small desk on the stage where producers can queue up browser tabs on request. It’s a similar set-up to the one used by the BBC for many of its bulletins on the Worldwide news channel. Again, this a big change for live studio managers to adopt: Minnaar describes being able to put content in front of cameras without it going through the usual production and editing channels as truly revolutionary.

Radio stations will be broadcasting remotely from Pretoria, using the same news feeds generated by Izak's team.
Radio stations will be broadcasting remotely from Pretoria, using the same news feeds generated by Izak’s team.

Best of all, Minnaar says that the broadcaster has been working with other websites to share its results widgets, and is happy for the interactive elements to embedded on non-SABC homepages (we’re planning on using one ourselves).

“We’re the public broadcaster,” he says, “We have a duty to be transparent and get this stuff out there. Our philosophy with this is to share.”

Behind the scenes

Should the data in the widgets not be comprehensive enough to explain a story on the night, there’s an entirely separate system in the back packed with even more data which is being managed by The Computer Foundation, a firm which was founded by two ex-members of the IEC and provides official election systems for other African countries, including Namibia.

Computer Foundation’s database is populated with comprehensive demographic data and vote results going back years, so if a journalist or one of the 50 or so outside analysts working with SABC wants to know how a particular social group earning a particular amount in a particular place are voting as quickly as possible, their best chance is to get the Computer Foundation team to look into it.

There’s a strong predictive element to the whole set-up too. Using calculations and a data feed from CSIR, Minnaar reckons that accurate predictions for which way a municipality is going to fall will be possible before 20% of votes in the area are counted.

One of the giant outside broadcast control rooms.
One of the giant outside broadcast control rooms.

“In the past,” he says, “CSIR have been able to predict within one or two percent the final results based on 10% of votes.”

Social media, too, has a big role to play. While the main elections website and widgets will be in English, around the country many of the regional news teams have built up strong local language followings on Facebook, and will use those communities as well their own broadcasts to break news to people in their own language.

Little is being left to chance, though. Telkom has connected all the election centres in the country together with broadband, but SABC is using a separate 400Gbps connection from Metro Ethernet to link to the IEC and connect its temporary server room in Pretoria to the outside world. Inside that room, incidentally, there are three blades just for failsafe purposes, as well as more in Internet Solutions’ datacentre back in Joburg.

Is it foolproof? Probably not – using interactive graphics on-screen sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Even Bill Gates has been upstaged by live demos going wrong. But I personally am rooting for things to go smoothly – it’s the kind of undertaking by a national broadcaster we could all be proud of.

Looking over the media area at IEC HQ. Three TV studios will be broadcasting next to each other.
Looking over the media area at IEC HQ. Three TV studios will be broadcasting next to each other.
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.