… Open.Up

March 25, 2011 at 6:04 pm 5 comments

I wasn’t going to blog about being RUNNER-UP in the TSO OPEN.UP competition.

Then someone said “I hope you’re going to blog about being runner-up in the TSO Open.Up competition”

So I am.

TSO Open.Up was an ideas competition for ideas that use government data.

I was presenting The Great British Public Toilet Map in the hope of getting some much needed money and support.

We don’t actually need much money. We’re going to stretch what we have in order to make a pilot site or proof-of-concept before the end of our research project (this Autumn), then see if we can use that output to find more funding, in order to do the project properly.

In terms of support, runner-up is very encouraging, and people have been enthusiastic and even proactive. Phew!

Anyway… each of the 4 finalists gave a 10 minute presentation to a panel of judges that needed to answer a series of questions. It involved 2 hours, Millbank Tower, a ‘green’ room and a Cameraman. Scary, much?

So in an act of self-smugness, I’m going to blog my presentation, because I really liked my slides.

I spent ages making my slides. SlideShare made them look rubbish, so I’m doing it this way instead, embedding the nicest ones in my cheesy Transcript.

As presentations go, it’s justifies the whole project and The Great British Public Toilet Map quite well, if I do say so myself.

[You can also see the slides and explanation for the winning entry, Opening Up UCAS Data, on the OUseful.Info blog. Just promise you’ll come back here afterwards…]

Hello, I’m Gail and I’m presenting The Great British Public Toilet Map.

This idea was inspired by the academic research project that I work on, TACT3, that’s looking at ways to design improvements to public toilets for older people.

Finding a toilet is a problem for all of us. It might be a problem on the way home tonight!

But for many the problem is not merely an inconvenience. It can effect where you go and for how long:

…how, and if, you keep healthy:

and your overall quality of life:

With public toilets closing due to spending cuts, accurate information on where you can find a toilet is all the more important.

More and more councils are paying businesses to allow non-customers to use their toilets under a Community Toilet Scheme. This opens up more publicly-available toilets, but they’re not recognisable in the same way that a public toilet is.

We need to get the information out about where these toilets are in a way that’s useful to both residents and visitors.

So we need an app to find toilets? – it’s an obvious solution.

Data.gov.uk alone has four different suggestions that amount to the same thing. All you need to do is download the public toilet dataset…

…but there isn’t one. There’s just one dataset on data.gov.uk, for the London Borough of Brent.

And there isn’t going to be one.

The Audit Commission used to at least count how many public toilets there are, but stopped doing that in 2000.

And the Department of Communities and Local Government are opposed to suggestions that they ask local authorities for the information in order to collate it:

So how do we find the toilets?

As public toilets are provided at borough or district level, the national’s provision (and the data about it) is spread over 300-400 different local authorities.

What would happen if we wrote to all these local authorities to ask them to publish public toilet open data?

Can we go from this…

to this?

Ambitious, but not impossible!

Just from contacting some councils myself over the last couple of months there are now nearly a dozen public toilet datasets.

However most councils don’t publish any open data. They need to be convinced of the benefits, and they need the public to convince them.


Not a real website. Yet.

This is what The Great British Public Toilet Map is about.

A public participation website where the public can look at where data exists, and where it does not.

For places like Brent, the website acts as a toilet finder, showing you where the toilets are and information about them.

Where data does not exist, the public can contact the local authority and ask them to join in.

The website can explain the benefits of open data to the general public using public toilets as an easy to understand example.

The public can then contact the council, and we could provide a sample letter to help them do this, whilst encouraging personal perspectives.

The councils can then hopefully respond to their resident’s needs, and people can begin making toilet maps that aren’t fragmented across hundreds of council websites.

It would be best to begin the toilet map with a pilot area such as London, Wales or a tourism region, in order to get a high concentration of data in one area which might make councils more keen to take part, or see neighbouring councils offering to help unlocking the data.

This is how it might look:

It would show progress made by each council and how many people had participated in the project.

The site is not a database – it extracts datasets that are hosted by the council and monitors for updates.

It then processes these into a common data type, to be display on the map and downloaded openly.

The site will also provide guidelines for a recommended format.

This will make life easier for the GBPTM in the future.

But more importantly, it will ensure that all the useful information is included,

because it’s not just about finding where the toilet is. It’s about finding a toilet that meets that person’s individual needs…

…that’s both open and accessible. This is where the real value lies.

Where will all this information come from?

From local authorities, although eventually it will extend to other providers of publicly-accessible loos, and to an extent, from the public, because even government data can have mistakes in it, so there needs to be a way for the public to feedback to errors the local authority.

The other set of data needed to council contact data, either for a council department or councilor. This has been used in other sites, so shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve.

So who’s going to take part in the Great British Public Toilet Map?

There are many people whose lifestyles are dictated by needing to find toilets.

More often than not these include:

  • those with continence concerns, either as a condition, a symptom, or a side effect of medication
  • Pregnant women,
  • carers,
  • parents and grandparents of young children
  • and older people

These are the people that we need to get involved.

We could approach groups like The Gut Trust, Parent’s networks, and Age UK.

We could reach people in their community, for example by promotion at the doctor’s since this is a health issue for many, (or via promotion in public toilets! Particularly ones that are participating and proud of it), or providing information on an online forum. We could ask existing participants to help promote the site online.

Finally I wanted to make a site that could also be used by individuals, that offered a really easy way to get involved, and which made it OK to mention public toilets to the council without being embarrassed. Here, you’re just asking where they are, you know others are also asking, and you’re all participating in a larger project.

Another potential user group is the councils themselves, to compare and analyse their public toilet provision with that of their neighbours or similar regions.

The final group of users are developers, who could also be considered the competition…

Are there already any other similar products available which could be competition for your idea?

Existing toilet-finding apps have their own ways of creating data. There are 3 different approaches: crowd-sourcing, using open data, or an individual or team who populate, maintain and moderate.

Half a dozen toilet apps already exist using 1 or more methods, but with no clear front-runner.

Crowd-sourcing may seem the obvious solution. But you need a lot of data already in the system to make it worthwhile for people to add to it.

The existing apps are incomplete, inaccurate or out-of-date. Some of the toilets included aren’t public or community toilets, or even toilets. Nothing could be more frustrating when you need the loo that a fake toilet.

This is where open data from local authorities can make a difference.

All these apps could use the open data to improve their app, in combination with public contributions.

How will your idea support itself once its been developed?

This is a graph I made up:

There’s an expense to develop the site and convert the data. But as more councils adhere to the guidance then the work becomes routine and the costs will decline, so long term running costs are quite low.

Advertising and corporate sponsorship don’t seem appropriate for a site providing open data on public facilities, but income might come from public or third sector support.

Eventually the GBPTM will be complete and could become absorbed into other open.data sites or become a government map of public toilets…

…much like the Australian Public Toilet Map, whilst maintaining the established communication link between the public and providers of public toilets to improve on other aspects of public toilet provision.

So, why should TSO invest?

Public toilets are not a glamorous issue. They’re rarely even mentioned and councils don’t even have to provide them! And yet there are few more basic needs than needing to find the toilet.

The GBPTM brings together this fractured information and provides a link between a public need and a public service. There are benefits in this approach not just to the public but also to the local authorities in terms of time and expense: this won’t cost them anything and will help make overall provision clearer and more efficient.

I really believe that this information can give people the confidence to go about their lives, to leave the house, stay out longer, go to new places and experience greater freedom in both business and leisure.

Thank you.


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… Ordnance Survey … Oxford Street

5 Comments Add your own

  • […] course code data was pitched alongside Gail Knight‘s Great British Public Toilet Map idea [presentation] (this so needs doing…), Harry Harrold‘s New Premises app (I can see commercial estate […]

  • 2. Christopher Gutteridge  |  March 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    This overlaps quite a bit with the work I’ve been doing for data.Southampton.ac.uk — part of it is getting the points of service from a variety of data owners, and getting student volunteers to look after what doesn’t (yet) have a (identified) owner.

    Each data owner has a similar google spreadsheet to update. When we republish the dataset we grab all the source spreadsheets, like this one: http://data.southampton.ac.uk/dumps/services/2011-03-14/services.csv

    They are converted into one big XML file (using an open source tool I’ve developed) and are then munged into RDF using a great big scary XSL file.

    It’s all Free & Open Source, you are welcome to the code or ideas that seem useful.

    I don’t have time to go so far as to pledge writing code for your project (mine eats my entire coding output right now), but my brains are available for picking as I can see how a *trustworthy* databases of loos would raise the quality of life for many people.

    • 3. Gail Knight  |  March 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks for this, it’s definitely something I need to consider further, especially the common spreadsheet format if this makes life easier for providers, and crowd-sourcing to fill in / highlight the gaps when data is still not forthcoming.

      It all depends on how I get on with Ordnance Survey. There’s probably a debate over whether council data is more *trustworthy* than crowd-sourced data, but developers have pretty much got the latter covered, so I’l keep pushing the council data side to see how far it gets.

      You’re approach – a combination of everything – is almost certainly the answer!

      Love this: http://opendatamap.ecs.soton.ac.uk/ :)

  • 4. Christopher Gutteridge  |  March 29, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    The open data map is being developed by postgrads for funsies, it’s not an offical university site!

    Like I said, I’m happy to give an hour or two for phone or email discussions at a point it’ll help.


  • 5. angela may  |  May 5, 2011 at 9:58 am

    are you aware of the ‘changing places changing lives’ campaign, and its map of specialist public toilets? also, tourism for all and the british toilet association have similar data


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