Idea #6: The Great British Public Toilet Map
***The GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC TOILET MAP is now a real website at http://greatbritishpublictoiletmap.rca.ac.uk***
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 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.
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.
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.
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?