Councils have a statutory obligation to respond to FOI requests within 20 days. Our Research Assistants Lizzie and Billie were tasked with sending out the FOI requests to the councils, as part of our current work on the project, funded by the Nominet Trust.
They identified 405 district councils and unitary authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the public toilet (and community toilet scheme) information on each council’s website was sufficient, they recorded this data. However if it was non-existent, or so brief that it was useless (e.g. “We have 6 public toilets.”), they sent FOI requests, working through the UK region by region. In total they sent 314 FOI requests.
As luck would have it, someone (Jonathan Roberts) had already made FOI requests to 31 councils for information about their public facilities, including toilets, including many in Wales, through the website What Do They Know?, so they only had to follow up on a few of these.
Lizzie wrote our request based on the advice from that site and feedback from Owen Boswarva following a previous blog post. Our request can be read at the end of this post.
Did it work? At last count, We had responses from 199 councils, equivalent to a response rate of 63%, in excess of our 50% target.
We were still waiting for a reply from 115 councils. A few had been chased 4 times as the 20-day period had passed without response. Of those that replied, the majority have sent data (or a pdf of data). A minority have directed us to the information already on their website. A couple have sent links to pre-existing open data. At least 1 council asked us to foot the bill, requesting £450 for the data to be collected. We declined.
Next we have to unpick what we can actually do with the data.
Whilst The Great British Public Toilet Map is a non-commercial use, the map does have to be sustainable, so we need the option to use the data for commercial purposes too.
Guidance shared by @_datapreneur about Section 102 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 says that datasets have to be made available for re-use, including for commercial purposes, if certain conditions are met.
Does the toilet data fit this description? I think it does. So long as the council ‘own’ the data it is theirs to release for re-use.
An exception would be Ordnance Survey location data. I’m also not sure about toilets provided by a third company, e.g. the Superloos. Could they ‘own the rights’ to the information about their opening hours, rather than the councils, for example? Is that even practical? At what point is information simply in the public domain?
At least one council has decided to share the information under EIR (Environmental Information Regulations) instead of the FOI Act, which makes things different again.
And what about the councils who specifically said it could only be used by The Great British Public Toilet Map, and for non-commercial gain? If they had no right to, are we ignoring them at our peril?
My next task it to get to the bottom of these questions, hopefully in a way which doesn’t involve extensive back-and-forth email conversations with 300 separate councils.
Suggestions, as always, are extremely welcome.
Dear ### Council,
We are writing to request details of your public toilet provision. We intend to use this information as open data for the Great British Public Toilet Map. This is a project started by the Royal College of Art and funded by the Nominet Trust to make it easier for people, in particular those with reduced continence, to find toilets.
Please treat this as a request for information under both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and under the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005, we request a dataset that covers all your toilet provision including public, library, parks and associated offices (one- stop offices for council tax payment etc). In short any toilet provision you offer to members of the public including those under any community toilet scheme you may have in operation. The specific data we require, if held by the Council, is:
- the longitude and latitude / postcode / exact location
- Opening times
- If there is a cost to use the facility
- Male / female
- Disabled access (including RADAR scheme)
- Baby changing (male and/or female)
- specialist provision such as urinals and/or squatting toilets
We request that this data is provided to us via email and if possible in a spreadsheet (XLS) format. We also request that this data is provided under licence that allows reuse, ideally the Open Government Licence.
Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter,
The Great British Public Toilet Map
The following video was made for the application and explains our project in 2 minutes – click to watch ..
We began work in March and will work on the map for 6 months. As I am on maternity leave, the project lead is the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design‘s Senior Research Fellow and Toilet Enthusiast, Jo-Anne Bichard, while the design ideas, data collection and day-to-day work has been embraced by Research Assistants and (soon to be graduating) MA students, Elizabeth Raby and Billie Muraben. Meanwhile, Neontribe are figuring out how to make it all work.
In brief, we aim to add A LOT more toilets. The existing site is little more than a prototype, consisting of data for a handful of London boroughs, a few other councils, National Rail Enquiries and Transport for London, the latter of which is four years out-of-date to my eternal frustration.
We also aim to improve the information about each toilet, since at the moment we have opening hours, wheelchair accessibility info and baby-changing info.
Therefore, we (.. and by ‘we’ I mean Lizzie, Billie and Neontribe) are:
- Trawling council websites for public and community toilet details
- Sending Freedom of Information requests when the info is missing or poor
- Importing the 4000-odd toilet locations from OpenStreetMap (OSM)
- Developing a means for the public and councils to add/amend entries, in order to crowd-source for data, to make it more reliable and complete
- Developing a means for all this extra info to be added back into OSM
- Redesigning the interface so that all these extra toilets and info can be seen and understood easily
..as well as a million other things that will help us to provide a useful, sustainable website by the autumn for everyone to benefit from.
I will try to blog about things as they develop, such as our massive FOI efforts (I believe the East Midlands are winning for the most replies), our upcoming paper-prototyping, and the licensing headache that is starting to emerge.
However, we met up with Harry and Rupert form Neontribe on May 1st and got very excited to have our first big toilet/data conversation for a very long time.
With such loo-mapping enthusiasm in the room, only good can come of this.
I’ve updated my records of which councils publish open data about their public toilets.
I’ve not checked every council, but I have checked every council listed as ‘open’ or ‘semi-open’ on openlylocal.com’s Open Data Scoreboard.
The links tend to go to their open data page rather than straight to the data itself.
There seem to be 25 councils that publish public toilet open data, which sounds a bit rubbish, although that’s several hundred loos. Also, a couple of those councils sent me a spreadsheet rather than publishing the data online.
Nearly 20 of these datasets were made because I asked a council who were publishing other data if they could also make an open dataset about their toilets, and they happily obliged.
I mention this because I’ve not asked anyone for any data in 2-3 years, and from what I can remember about 4 more datasets have appeared in that time.
Which is a bit sad. This suggests that either a) progress in council data moves at a snail’s pace, with not many more councils joining the revolution, and still no one thinking of toilets or b) if you don’t ask you don’t get. Or maybe c) both.
.. Open Data Councils (Jan 2011)
.. More Open Data Councils (June 2011)
This follows on from the previous post, where I trawled the council websites of England and Wales and found just under 5000 public and community toilets.
I’ve quickly searched through the district and borough councils of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and can add another 756 toilets to the count, made up of 706 public toilets and 50 in community toilet schemes.
The community toilet schemes are all in Scotland, where they’re known as ‘comfort schemes’. I found 5 listed, but I expect there are more.
Northern Ireland will also have more loos, but the council websites are a disappointment for the average toilet-hunter. I only found toilets listed in 11 of 26 borough council websites, and only one passing reference to a toilet scheme.
I’ve completed a count of public and community toilets in England and Wales, as listed on council websites.
It began last May. Spurred on by my annoyance at Wandsworth Council’s decision to stop paying businesses to be in their Community Toilet Scheme (a decision which has reduced the number of participants from 75 to 7), I wanted to know whether other councils pay participants to be in their schemes, and how many schemes exist.
“How long can it take to Google every council?” I wondered.
Well, I’ve just finished. (I did have a baby in between)
I decided, whilst I was searching, to also record the URL of each council’s community toilet scheme (CTS) webpage, and also their public convenience page. I also counted how many toilets there were.
I used an ONS spreadsheet of population density to get the list of all the district and unitary authority councils for England and Wales, then googled them one by one. If Google didn’t find anything I searched the council website directly. If that did’t find anything I moved on. Consequently I’ve not done Scotland and Northern Ireland. They’ll have to wait.
The results are:
3980 public toilets
1009 community toilets
59 community toilet schemes
The vast majority of schemes pay businesses to participate, ranging from £200 to £1560 a year. Some councils are not forthcoming with the information and I have to search the minutes of the council meetings, which can affect my will to live. Sometimes I give up.
In Wales, where it seems the Welsh Government has spurred on every council to start a scheme, the going-rate is £500.
These figures are not conclusive. Sometimes I miscount. Also, they are reliant on the information being available online, and on it being up-to-date. Some councils may have lots of loos but prefer to keep it to themselves.
There are also over 1000 toilets in railway stations, a couple of hundred on the Transport for London network, and lots in service stations and shopping centres which are generally not included in these webpages. Also some councils are devolving public toilets to smaller town and parish councils, and I’m not about the google all of them.
So for England and Wales there are probably another 2000 publicly accessible toilets out there which are not included here, bringing the total up to around 7000 loos.
Good to know.
This week, whilst trawling council papers for mention of loos, as one does, I noticed that Wandsworth Council are scrapping the budget for their Community Toilet Scheme.
They’re not scrapping the Community Toilet Scheme – they’re just not going to pay businesses to participate in it anymore.
Community Toilet Schemes (CTS) are where the council pays local businesses (shops, pubs, cafes, etc) a yearly fee in exchange for letting the public use their toilets without having to buy anything. The council has an annual contract with each business, and the business has to display a sticker in their window so that the public know that they can use their loos. They council may also make leaflets or maps, and list the businesses online.
Community Toilet Schemes are suggested by the Government as a good way to supplement a council’s existing public toilet provision, but they do seem to launch at around the same time as the council announces the closure of the public loos.
Wandsworth Council are no exception.
In 2008 they launched their CTS and spent a couple of years building it up whilst closing down their Automatic Public Conveniences, or Superloos. I struggled to care about the toilet closures. Many of the Superloos were not well used – the most expensive was costing the council £18.08 per visit – and you couldn’t pay me to go in one. The council built up their scheme responsibly, ensuring a good coverage of the borough, and that the scheme included at least one CTS participant in each location where a Superloo had been.
Prior to the CTS, Wandsworth were paying £456 000 a year for 24 Superloos.
Their current CTS, one of the largest in the country, has over 100 toilets, and pays a generous annual fee to each participant of £900. Its annual costs are £100 000.
Even with the huge annual savings already made from switching to a CTS, this is apparently still too much, so the new budget is £0.
The council report says that the scheme will stay in place, as
“many of the businesses may see the increased footfall as commercially advantageous”.
Which would be great if it was based on fact, and businesses had finally recognised that toilets are an asset to shopping areas like the high street and should be valued and promoted as such.
However I’ve just noticed the word ‘may’ in that quote: “many of the businesses may see the increased footfall as commercially advantageous”.
May? Do they not know? Are participants even experiencing higher footfall? Have the council not asked them?
This sounds like nothing but a notion; a half-hearted justification for removing the entire budget.
Taking away the incentive of money jeopardises the whole scheme.
Firstly, if there’s no payment then there’s no need for a contract. The only way Wandsworth promote the scheme is through the stickers in the participants’ windows, which is one of the biggest problems – businesses did not comply. Previously if a business failed to comply then they were breaking their contract and the council could take away the money and chuck them out the scheme. Without the fee they’ve no contract, without a contract they can’t enforce the stickers, and without the stickers you’ve got no scheme (or “Open London” as the Mayor calls it).
It also means that you’ve got less leverage to ensure an inclusive public service, one with a good distribution of toilets, opening times and facilities (e.g. wheelchair accessibility, baby-changing). The scheme is now driven by commercial gain instead of public need. The market will decide where you wee.
Basically I was trying not to be cynical and thought maybe Wandsworth Council had done their research and had a plan, but with no money, no enforcement, no control, no promotion and no justification, it would be easy for someone to summarised that Wandsworth Council had:
1) Started a Community Toilet Scheme in order to close their public toilets,
2) Closed their Community Toilet Scheme.
But cheer up!
By cutting their entire toilet budget, Wandsworth Council have saved their residents (or ‘Wandsworth taxpayers’ as they like to say) a whopping 87p a year.
Or 2.9 wees at Clapham Junction station.
Don’t spend it all at once.
Nearly 3 months ago now I went to the annual conference of the British Toilet Association.
The BTA’s annual conference consists of a morning meeting of around 30-40 people in a hotel in Stratford.
It was one of the most useful conferences that I’d been to. The first person I spoke to was Mark Power, the architect who’d designed the new public toilet on the South Bank in London, the ‘Jubiloo’. The next was Roger Berry, the managing director of Healthmatic, one of the main providers of public toilets in the UK. Roger impressed me with his ipad full of public toilet usage statistics – footfall, fluctuation, revenus, ratings, feedback. I had found my people.
Raymond Martin of the BTA talked about the association’s consultation work with a few UK councils, and gave many interesting examples of public toilet management from around the country.
For example, a local scout group had been encouraged to ‘adopt a loo’. how this worked was that the council gave the scout group a couple of grand (I’m guessing..) to maintain the toilet, and any money left over at the end of the year they could keep. The theory was that the vandalism was being carried out by people of the scouts’ age, but that ‘peer-to-peer policing’ would be an effective way of reducing bad behaviour.
In another corner of the country, a council gave a local artist a patch on the street to sell his work, in exchange for keeping an eye on the toilets next door. Other services located at a public toilet to either maintain the toilet or provide natural surveillance included: a taxi rank, bike hire, tourist information, shop and ticket sellers.
Many toilets close due to poor maintenance and anti-social behaviour (or the fear of). ‘Design out crime’ ideas such as stainless steel toilets and UV lighting also design out legitimate use. Ideas such as these provide a more affordable way to maintain a public toilet.
We then had 2 presentations from sales people with public toilet-related products, although I can’t find the links right now so I’ll fill this in later.
I gave a 20 minute presentation about the Great British Public Toilet Map. Both Healthmatic and the BTA were supportive of the project and keen to see it develop. A representative of Visit Britain was also encouraging and we had a good gossip over lunch about the lack of government open data and the struggles of a similar project to map blue badge parking.
All in all, a good day. If I can just get the map off the ground again (translation: find more money), then the support is there to keep it going.