How The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Used Crowdsourced Data to Expose Cigarette Advertising Near Schools

by Lauren Baumer and John Adair


In 2022, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) began investigating cigarette advertising near schools in Lima, Peru, as a part of their Global Health project. Peru is a signatory to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and has implemented domestic legislation prohibiting outdoor advertising of cigarettes within 500 meters of schools.  TBIJ utilized on-ground volunteers to collect data. Volunteers were recruited through in-person sessions at universities in Lima and by an open invitation on their website. Volunteers were unpaid but could enter a raffle to win a retail gift card and were given a certificate of participation upon request. Some universities awarded student volunteers course credits for participation.

Organization Background: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is an independent, not-for-profit news organization based in the U.K., founded by David and Elaine Potter in 2010. The organization collaborates with other publications and news outlets to serve the public interest through investigations that expose injustice and incite change.


Project Goals

TBIJ’s Global Health team aimed to shed light on how, despite claims of phasing out traditional cigarettes around the world, some tobacco companies continue to expose children and young people to tobacco products. Despite being a signatory to the FCTC, Peru has not enacted a total ban on cigarette advertising, and the law only covers advertisements placed outside of stores. Utilizing a legal loophole, supermarkets, bodegas, and mini-marts are known to contain cigarette advertising inside their stores. This project is meant to push for tighter regulations on the advertisement of cigarettes with a focus on reducing exposure to children. This project sought to address the data gap concerning the prevalence of cigarette advertising in proximity to schools, intending to support initiatives in tobacco harm prevention, particularly for children. 

Project Resources

Volunteers were recruited through in-person sessions at local universities and through an open invitation on TBIJ’s website, which included text and a video in Spanish. Volunteers were offered the chance to participate in a raffle for a department store gift card, and some universities offered student volunteers course credits for their participation. Volunteers were tasked with submitting photos and details of cigarette advertising in shops in their neighborhoods, utilizing the data collection app KoboToolbox. After data collection, TBIJ conducted remote fact-checking utilizing Google Maps and Street View. Peru’s Ministerio de Educación database was used to identify the number of pupils at schools within the range of the verified adverts. This data was used to calculate the total number of students at risk of exposure to these cigarette adverts. 

Tools & Technology

Volunteers used KoboToolbox, a data collection app, to submit photos, information about cigarette brands and manners of promotions, GPS locations, and store addresses. The app works with or without Wi-Fi, collecting and sending the data once within the Wi-Fi range. Data was fact-checked remotely by both involved and uninvolved parties using Google Maps, Street View, and other open-source information when available. A bilingual interactive map was generated to display the store and school data. 


92 stores in Lima had approved and verified advertising of cigarettes, encompassing 212 instances of advertising. The project found 596 primary and secondary schools within 500 meters, or 0.31 miles, of a cigarette ad. For context, the United States of America, a heavily car-dependent nation, considers 0.25 miles to be walking distance, according to the National Institute of Health. Location and pupil registration data from Peru’s Ministerio de Educación’s database calculated these schools account for 235,085 students potentially exposed to cigarette advertising. Brightly-colored cigarette packages were also found near sweets and snacks, in plain view of children. The packaging and advertising could easily cause a child to mistake the cigarettes for candy. TBIJ found some shops illegally displaying cigarette advertising outside their stores. One bodega owner stated that cigarette distributors visit twice a month to personally place advertisements. TBIJ’s data was used in the most recent submission to change Peruvian laws around tobacco advertising- TBIJ is awaiting a status update on the law. 

How it Happened

TBIJ had previously investigated instances of cigarette advertising on billboards near schools, and in one instance, after alerting the company, the advertisement was changed. TBIJ wondered how prevalent this issue was globally and wanted to find a way to document and share conclusions from the data. They spoke with organizations such as the World Health Organization, Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, and Johns Hopkins University as pre-research for the study. TBIJ decided to focus on low and middle-income countries due to previous findings that some big tobacco companies are not reducing their import of cigarettes to the global South. They initially aimed to focus on three cities- one in South America, Asia, and Africa- but reduced to one site due to person-hours and funding required.

What Worked

1. Focused

TBIJ found the project logistically achievable by narrowing down locations to a single city, Lima, Peru. When considering the number of man-hours and the project’s funding, it became clear that the most effective means of investigation would be to focus solely on Lima.

2. Collaboration

TBIJ collaborated with globally recognized experts to form the research method. Reaching out to the World Health Organization, Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, and Johns Hopkins University helped with the overall project development. Further, collaboration with local volunteers was vital to the project.

3. Technology

KoboToolbox was instrumental in collecting data from volunteers. TBIJ was introduced to the web application by partners at the World Health Organization who had previously utilized the app for data collection. KoboToolbox allows for customized data entry which proved to be a functional and streamlined tool for TBIJ’s data collection.

What Could Have Worked Better

1. Translation

TBIJ’s team lacked an in-house Spanish speaker, which caused some translation challenges. TBIJ utilized a non-Peruvian Spanish speaker for one aspect of translation, resulting in the need for additional verification. TBIJ aimed to work solely with in-country freelancers and media partners, but the lack of shared language prolonged communication.

2. Data Acquisition

TBIJ faced unanticipated challenges in acquiring school addresses from the nation’s education database. Technological problems ensued that barred TBIJ from scraping the information until later than expected.

What Else You Should Know

This project was a pilot for TBIJ in methodology, so the team worked closely with senior leadership before beginning. This included finding the best practice for volunteer recruitment and safeguarding as well as the means and level of fact-checking required. TBIJ worked closely with a Peruvian impact producer and in-country educational organizations to ensure the project’s plans were implemented as intended. Volunteers were offered a certificate of participation in the project. TBIJ utilized this study in a workshop with Africa Data Hub at the 2024 Africa Media Festival, which aims to demystify community data collection.

Learn More

To learn more about the project, Quarter of a million children in Lima exposed to cigarette advertising near school, contact Chrissie Giles by email or on Twitter.

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