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February 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm 1 comment

I’m out of ideas with this public toilet open data.

It’s been fun, but we’ve got no money and I’m feeling pretty despondent that we’ll find funding.

It’s not cheap doing research (though not expensive either? It’s all relative..) – we’d need somewhere in the tens-of-thousands for our research centre to do another year’s work (including development) – the idea being that with another year we could develop it to a point where it was tempting for someone else to take on, ‘sustainable’ even. However the general opinion seems to be that it’s a great idea but someone else should be paying for it. 

In August 2010 I wrote to my local MP to huff and puff about the previous Government’s lack of response to a 2007-08 Communities and Local Government Select Committee into public toilets.

She asked the Department of Communities and Local Government to respond to my concerns, and Parliamentrary Under Secretary of State Andrew Stunell MP replied. His reply can be read here. It was not encouraging.

So, as something of a last resort (although I’m now not sure why I haven’t done this before? Cynicism, at a guess..) I’ve replied to Mr Stunell to let him know what we’ve been up to since then and that there’s a ‘Good Idea’ up for grabs if he fancies it.


Dear Mr Stunell,

In Autumn 2010 you replied by mail to my letter about public toilets (via my local MP Jane Ellison).

I would like to let you know about the work that we have been doing since receiving your reply, developing public toilet open data and ‘The Great British Public Toilet Map’ (http://greatbritishpublictoiletmap.rca.ac.uk). I would also like to ask for your assistance.

For over 2 years I have been working in inclusive design research into improving public toilets, funded by the UK research councils, at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

In your letter you said that:

“It is right that local people should be able to hold local authorities to account over decisions taken on their behalf. Transparency is the foundation of accountability and we are challenging local authorities to give easy access to a wide range of data including service information.”

For over a year I have been helping councils to improve both their public toilet provision and transparency by publishing open data about their toilet locations, opening hours and accessibility, in line with the Government’s commitment to open data and all the benefits to innovation that it brings.

“I understand that a considerable amount of public information about public toilets is already publicly available via local authority and other privately provided websites.”

I’m afraid that this is not accurate nor solving the problem of finding a public toilet when away from home.

With regard to local authority websites, too much information is out-of-date, inconsistent or absent. This was confirmed in the 2011 London Assembly investigation into London’s toilets.

With regard to privately-provided websites, these provide a snap-shot of toilets at the time that the database was created. It’s not possible for a single moderator to monitor and update data on thousands of toilets across the UK – there are (only) 800 in London alone. Those that try crowd-sourcing the data leave themselves open to erroneous entries and incomplete information.

By encouraging councils to publish public toilet open data, the information can be collated into a single source and displayed on sites like our own work-in-progress pilot website ‘The Great British Public Toilet Map’ (which I mention merely an example, rather than a solution) rather than fragmented across 406 local authority websites (where it exists).

Websites and apps can display the most up-to-date data provided by each council. This puts the power over the quality of the information into the hands of each council. It also stimulates business by giving the privately-provided websites and apps the seed data to make their service work, to which they can add value through innovation.

I would like to ask the Government to investigate the creation of a web service that helps local councils (and transport bodies, service stations and other providers of publicly-accessible toilets) to provide this data, collates the information and outputs it under an Open Licence for developers to use.

I believe in localism and would not wish to suggest councils should be forced to do this. The benefits lie in providing an interface that assists a council officer to create the data, in collating that data on a national level, and in attracting the wider open data community to develop services that both inform the public and promote the provision of public toilets. This seems to me to be a good fit with current Coalition policy.

I can offer you a prior example from the Australian Government who achieved exactly this by gathering information from 1000 councils and organisations about 15000 public toilets (http://www.toiletmap.gov.au)

I can also offer my experiences. Since late 2010 I have:

  • contacted around 100 councils explaining the need for open data about public toilets
  • increased the number of councils publishing public toilet open data from one to 30+, despite considerable barriers due to Ordnance Survey licencing and local council understanding of open data.
  • assisted the London Assembly in their investigation into London’s public toilets and development of an open data standard for public toilets, the first of its kind (http://www.london.gov.uk/publication/public-toilets-london)
  • tested and demonstrated the potential for public toilet open data through the website ‘The Great British Public Toilet Map’ for a pilot area of the London boroughs

I have also presented this work at:

  • the 2011 TSO Open.Up competition, where the judges created a special runner-up place for the project because of its social benefits
  • DCLG’s own ‘Really Useful’ event organised to develop projects that made good use of local open data
  • The Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design Symposium 2011, attended by Ed Vaisey MP

Our work on public toilet open data has been consistently praised within local government and DCLG circles as “A Good Idea”, and we would be happy to (and have been encouraged to) continue working on it, but we simply do not have the funding, nor could we take responsibility for the legacy of project – we are a research centre, not a central hub of public data.

However I believe far too much in the importance of this project to let it die.

Local councils are not in a position to spend money building public toilets, but as a society we are in a position to provide better information about those that we have. This is essential to improve the quality of life for the estimated 3 million british people with continence problems (http://www.patient.co.uk/health/Urinary-Incontinence.htm), who’s freedoms are restricted by their lack of information of and access to public toilets.

This would be a public service to meet an urgent public need.

Please let me know if you would like to know more about this work. I would be happy to discuss it further.

Yours sincerely,


Gail Ramster (Knight)

Research Associate

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

Royal College of Art

Kensington Gore

London SW7 2EU

email: gail.ramster@network.rca.ac.uk

web: http://www.hhc.ac.uk

blog: gailknight.wordpress.com


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1 Comment Add your own

  • […] Earlier this month I emailed a reply to that letter from the Minister to let him that we’d done everything that he’d suggested (somewhat coincidentally) but that the project was ending and that perhaps the government would see the potential in taking the work on instead. Someone on Twitter just said how good my letter was, so I re-read it, and you know what? They’re right. It’s here: Public Toilets and … ? […]


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