.. Freedom of Information

June 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm 4 comments

One way in which we are finding more toilets to add to The Great British Public Toilet Map is by making Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

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,

Yours faithfully,


The Great British Public Toilet Map


Entry filed under: Open Data. Tags: , , , , , .

.. The Great British Public Toilet Map, Take 3. .. the Open Data Institute

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Owen Boswarva (@owenboswarva)  |  June 25, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Gail, I’m glad to see you’re making headway.

    Unfortunately the Section 102 guidance *doesn’t* say the datasets have to be made available for re-use including for commercial purposes.

    Public authorities are (usually) now required to offer terms for re-use of data released under FOI, if requested. However they have a number of options. One is the Open Government Licence, but they can also offer a non-commercial use licence (which would preclude commercial use) or they can offer a commercial use licence that involves a fee.

    The ICO guidance is useful, but if you want to get into the fine details you should read the Ministry of Justice’s Code of Practice (Datasets):


    and the related Fees Regulations:


    I’ve also written an analysis of the Code of Practice:


    Re your question about third party rights (i.e. the Superloos), that depends on how the council collected the data. If the third party provided information to the council in a structured format then they might in theory have “database rights”. In practice though I doubt the information has much commercial value so would expect any such third party to go along with whatever approach the council wants to take.

    — @owenboswarva

    • 2. Gail  |  June 25, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Thank you Owen.
      Yes I both misunderstood and over-simplified with my description. It sounded so promising!

      It’s frustrating as we still have councils that don’t specify a licence at all despite our specifically requesting it, or that place restrictions that seem to contradict this guidance. Factor in the copyright issue and the whole thing could take months to resolve if we go council-by- council, requiring man hours that we don’t have.

      Firstly though I’ll attempt to read the code of practice. Thank you for the links!

  • 3. James  |  July 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Which council asked for £450? You should name and shame, not so much because they were charging, but because they are so inefficient they don’t think they can publish the data for less than that!

    • 4. Gail  |  July 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Hull City Council.
      To be specific, they said our request would cost more than £450 to fulfil, because they do not have a dataset that contains the information that we asked for.
      Neither do a lot of councils, but they send the information that they had.
      So I take this to mean that Hull don’t know anything about their public toilets.


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