Idea #6: The Great British Public Toilet Map

January 6, 2011 at 9:12 pm 28 comments

***The GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC TOILET MAP is now a real website at http://greatbritishpublictoiletmap.rca.ac.uk***

Not a real website. Yet. (UPDATE Sept 2011: Now a real website! at http://greatbritishpublictoiletmap.rca.ac.uk)

This idea is one of the main outcomes of our Out of Order research project (part of the New Dynamics of Ageing project, TACT3) into improving public toilets for older people.

Where are the toilets?Public toilet provision is incredibly fragmented down to approximately 326 district or borough councils. A complete dataset requires the participation of all of these local authorities in a subject that is often overlooked but which is basic to society; so basic that many open data websites have suggestions for toilet-finder apps, without knowing that there’s no national data. These apps (and other maps) would be useful to everyone, but for many people with specific medical conditions this information is essential to their quality of life.

Currently, the only reliable way to find public toilet information is to visit each council website, which is only practical for residents, much less so for visitors, and without a smartphone this information isn’t available at the time you’d want it most – when out and about.

The Website

The Great British Public Toilet Map gives a national focus to a local problem. The site is based around a map-search. When the public search for a location they’ll receive one of two responses – either information on the nearby toilets if the council provides open toilet data, or a page suggesting how they can contact their local council to request that they participate in the project by releasing open data. A sample letter would be provided explaining the issues.

The idea behind the map is that it shows a useful tangible output to the mysterious world of data. Essentially the site is a campaign tool to enable individuals to engage with their local councils on public toilets.

As the project takes off the site becomes a useful toilet-finding tool (though not perhaps as useful as the apps that will be developed by anyone who wants to once the public toilet data is available. What apps do really well is allow feedback on the facility – ratings, comments – that could also be of real-time benefit to the provider)

This site does not store public toilet data; it links to and uses existing open data.  Currently there are perhaps a dozen downloadable public toilet datasets on council websites, which is pretty pathetic, and won’t look great on a map of the country! But I envisage a pilot site, such as The London Public Toilet Map or The Welsh Public Toilet Map, which might be more manageable and nearer completion.

Public Participation

The public involvement is needed for 2 reasons.  Firstly there are so many local councils that it’s not practical for one person to contact each one suggesting the addition of this dataset. Even this assumes that they’re an ‘open’ council, i.e. familiar with open data. If they’re not an open council, then this is a great dataset to start with! It could be nothing more than a tiny .csv file. One thing the site would propose though is optional guidelines on a standard dataset that would include information of the greatest benefit to the public (and for data compatibility between councils).

Secondly it’s not appropriate for one person to contact all councils. I think that councils would be more receptive to their own residents asking for something because they wish to use it and see the value, rather than a researcher or developer who might want it for personal gain.

One huge advantage for local councils is that they could include data on their Community Toilet Schemes.  These schemes, where councils pay a grant to local businesses to let the public use their toilets, are becoming more and more popular and are encouraged by the government. They are also much, much cheaper, so will dramatically increase in number in response to the spending cuts.

However they are notoriously difficult to publicise, and take the problems mentioned before of toilet data only being available on council websites to an extreme. This information needs to be part of a borderless dataset and available on printed maps and apps, but is far too extensive and detailed for existing crowd-sourcing toilet-finding apps, some (but not all) of which are unreliable, incomplete and unmoderated.

Prior Work

A couple of existing (non-participation) projects/maps can be seen at The Australian National Public Toilet Map (a Government project) and a prize-winning Danish project, run by a Danish lady, Tine Muller @tinemuller who’s working with councils to create a database.

The Future?

Of course there’s lots of potential for ideas that could come out of the data if the data were available, which I’ll also be working on (not least offline ideas that would complement high-tech solutions for those who are not online).

The next steps are to look for funding so that we can build the website (i.e. pay for someone to build the website) and look for a project partner who can offer more long-term support – our research project ends November 2011, after which time spent by us managing the website will be drastically reduced (to zilch). On the plus side, it’s good to have a deadline!

This idea can also be seen here where I submitted it to a competition (the public nature of which is why I figured I may as well post it here too…)

Comments? Criticism? Feedback? Please?  Can you improve on it?

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Entry filed under: Ideas!, Information Design, Open Data. Tags: , , , , , .

2010 in review … OpenStreetMap

28 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul Downey  |  January 7, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Hi Gail! Nicely articulated post. An open, wikiable data is exactly what we’re in the process of building for OpenBritain, all be it with a focus on accessibility. In an ideal world we’d store the locations as points of interest on osm.org

    Reply
    • 2. Gail Knight  |  January 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks. I think the two will complement each other really well: reliable public toilet information & places which are accessible to those with disabilities. Good luck with the project :)

      Reply
  • 3. Helen  |  January 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Great idea. Could it link in with the Changing Places campaign for accessible toilets? They already have a map.

    http://www.changing-places.org/

    Reply
    • 4. Gail Knight  |  January 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Hi Helen,

      Good point.

      (for anyone who doesn’t know, there are now over 200 Changing Places toilets, which are “for people who cannot use standard accessible toilets.This includes people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their carers, as well as many other disabled people. They need Changing Places toilets with enough space and the right equipment, including a height adjustable changing bench and a hoist.”)

      It would be very easy to include Changing Places toilets in the map, and hopefully that would add a bit of awareness to the rest of the public as it’s so important for people to know about Changing Places. There’s a new public toilet planned for Oxford Street – I hope the Changing Places team have been made aware in case it’s a suitable location for another facility.

      Reply
  • 5. nickj  |  January 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Saw this and thought of you: http://londonist.com/2010/12/hand-drawn-maps-selected-loos-of-london.php

    Reply
    • 6. Gail Knight  |  January 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      Ooooh! I didn’t know there was a Japanese loo in London… and they’re right about M&S. Thanks Nick, this is awesome…

      Reply
  • 7. L’opendata dans tous ses états Jan I «  |  January 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    […] Pour information, les données sur les toilettes publiques ont la côte. […]

    Reply
  • 8. Harry Wood  |  January 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Glad to see osmosoft’s Paul Downey has spotted this. I’ve been chatting to him about toilets.

    My interest is in OpenStreetMap.org. You’ve mentioned wiki style map editing. A good way to do that would be an OpenStreetMap tie-in.

    Directly importing lots of POIs is probably a bad idea, but it’s not necessary. We should look at bringing in the data manually, with the community. Bike Shop Locator is an example of this style of more careful “community import”.

    There’s some technical work building a site for data collection (OpenBritain ideas) Presenting nodes to add into OpenStreetMap, or merging with existing toilet nodes, could be part of that site functionality.

    Osmosoft said they’d be interested in hosting a could maybe host an OpenStreetMap hack event, maybe this next one coming up (early planning stages) Perhaps we could do some hacking on the topic of toilets! Osmosoft’s Matt Lucht has listed himself there.

    Reply
    • 9. Gail Knight  |  January 13, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      Hi Harry,

      Thanks for your helpful comment. I was wondering how the two sites (or council data vs OSM) could ties together and the Bike Shop Locator example is a good example of that.

      There are a small number of council datasets for public toilets available – it’s not many but it’s as good a place as any to compare the OSM data in these areas with the Local Authority list. I’ll write a list with links in due course.

      Being untechnical I don’t know if I can be of any use at a hack event, but am happy to go to anything if anyone thinks otherwise.

      Sounds like Osmosoft are making great progress! It’s reassuring to discover other toilet projects alive and well on the web :)

      Reply
  • 10. Gregory Marler  |  January 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Btw, there are over 28 thousand toilets in the world that have been added to OpenStreetMap.
    http://tagstat.petschge.de/tagvaluedetails.php?tag=amenity&value=toilets

    About 727 places tagged as having toilets (probably in addition to the stand alone ones above, example could be shops with toilets for customers only).
    http://tagstat.petschge.de/tagdetails.php?tag=toilets

    Reply
  • 11. Gregory Marler  |  January 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Ah, 3,242 amenity=toilets in GB that are in the OSM data. Please don’t do anything with them by hand, it will take you a lot longer than 56!

    I could set up a London toilet map like my elephant map. http://www.livingwithdragons.com/elephants/

    Reply
  • 13. Fiona H  |  January 25, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    You could even review them …

    http://fihabogblog.wordpress.com/author/fijaha/

    Reply
    • 14. Gail Knight  |  January 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm

      THIS IS AMAZING!!! :) I’m very impressed and a bit jealous. Great blog Fiona!

      I’m going to add it to my public toilet reading list…

      Reply
  • 15. Tine Müller  |  January 28, 2011 at 11:42 am

    What are your plans about when a toilet is closed or a new one is made or changing diapers will be possible for instance . How will you get this info updated the way you make your map?

    That’s why I decided to make it possible for 98 councils in Denmark to login and delete and update the info for their own toilets using OpenSource programs like Drupal and Google maps api so the map are updated at once when the changes are made.

    Also possibility for ALL people to get the info about the toilets in XML-format to use for their own projects and smartphones. This way the data will always be up-to-date.

    Explained here http://www.findtoilet.dk/ and links to testsites. If you need me to translate it to english just tell me so.

    In Denmark we have communities where ALL the councils have connections to each other. So I now make a pilotproject for Copenhagen council and when we are satisfied we tell about it to these communities so ALL the councils can do the same.

    Of course there will be some work for a person to get all this done but I think this could be a job for me. At the moment I’m on early retirement and do this map for free but maybe there in the future could be a paid job for me.

    Good luck with your map.

    Reply
    • 16. Tine Müller  |  January 29, 2011 at 10:36 am

      I have made a video of some of the public toilets in Copenhagen http://www.tinemuller.dk/findtoilet/VIDEO/StreetView/StreetView.html

      This is made dynamically with Google Maps API v3 inside Drupal so when you have the coordinates it find the StreetView automatically.

      Think this would be great so people can see the toiletbuilding and find it easier.

      What do you think? Have fun.

      Reply
  • 17. Gail Knight  |  January 31, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Hi Tine,

    Thanks for your comments! Really useful.

    I’ve steered away from asking councils to add information to a database since that would limit the ways in which they participate. It’s going to be difficult to get the information at all, so I’d rather allow them to publish it as they wish on their website (and thus allowing others immediate access as well). It could then be reformatted it into our UK map.

    As someone recommended, it could then be extracted from the UK map in a single format, e.g. xml.

    In time councils would see it as being in their best interests to follow the recommended guidelines on publishing the data ‘our’ way in the first place, so that the information is complete.

    Perhaps this will be a mistake – time will tell! There are advantages and disadvantages of both methods…

    I also don’t know yet how realistic all the reprocessing is. I’m trying not to quiz developers too much until we have some funding to pay them!

    The advantage of Google StreetView is clear – photos are really useful, especially for those with disabilities who could then tell by sight whether a toilet is appropriate before going there.

    But some have mentioned concerns about the ownership of data on Google – I can’t pretend to know myself.

    Anyone listening who does?!

    Reply
  • 18. Tine Müller  |  February 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Think you misunderstand the way that I use StreetView. It’s NOT images/printscreens.

    Try click in InfoWindow on StreetView on some of the toilets http://beta.findtoilet.dk/?term=2 and use your mouse to pan the map and if you want to see this on maps.google.com just click the Logo in the left corner – Powered by Google and from there you have a lot of possibilities.

    If you want to go away from StreetView just click the marker or crossed in the right corner at the top.

    Reply
    • 19. Gail Knight  |  February 2, 2011 at 10:08 am

      Don’t worry Tine, I know how StreetView works. I probably should have said ‘image’ or ‘visual’ rather than ‘photo’ :)

      Reply
  • 20. Tine Müller  |  February 2, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Ok great Gail. :-)

    But then I don’t understand your concern and answer?

    But some have mentioned concerns about the ownership of data on Google – I can’t pretend to know myself.
    
    Anyone listening who does?!
    Reply
    • 21. Tine Müller  |  February 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

      Instead of each Country/City struggles with our own way of showing public toilets why not work together?

      AND maybe this site http://www.epsiplatform.eu/ will interest some of you. Maybe some money from EU to make this kind of projects?

      Reply
  • 22. Tine Müller  |  March 9, 2011 at 6:25 am

    I have now also made it possible for ALL people to download the info as they want.

    Look at http://beta.findtoilet.dk/content/feeds and (alle feeds). still at test level.

    Reply
  • 23. Harry Wood  |  March 30, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Congratulations on getting this idea featured on the guardian data blog Gail. What stage are you at with this now though? I’m confused. The screenshot here shows a domain name: greatbritishpublictoiletmap.org.uk , which doesn’t exist. But are you responsible for toiletmap.org ? Gregory is attending the OpenStreetMap London Hack weekend next weekend. I think he’s planning to work on this then, but is he working with you on toiletmap.org? Are you sending anyone else to hack weekend to join in with refinement of toilet technology?

    Reply
    • 24. Gail Knight  |  March 30, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      You’re right to be confused.

      The domain name was just for illustrative purposes (I photoshop-ed it). I shouldn’t have made it so realistic!

      The site is still an idea; we’re working on creating a pilot version.

      Gregory’s project is all his own, but I’m dropping in to OSM London Hack weekend on Sat (once I’ve signed up tomorrow) to meet him.

      Reply
  • 25. Toilet Data - Loose Wire Media  |  April 28, 2011 at 3:45 am

    […] Idea #6- The Great British Public Toilet Map « Public Toilets and … […]

    Reply
  • 26. Living with Dragons » Flushing a website away  |  September 23, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    […] the start of 2011 I spotted a blog post from Gail Ramster who was tirelessly attempting to build a map of public toilets. Getting information from councils […]

    Reply
  • 27. Edafe Onerhime  |  October 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Stumbled across this while looking for open data stories. Has anything come out of this?

    Reply

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