Archive for May, 2015

…the magic of open data

I’m so annoyed.. or elated.. I’m not sure.

I just made a fully-functioning Toilet Map for England & Wales in just over an hour.

Click the image to try out this map of 1611 loos:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 14.04.51

©2015 HERE Terms of use CartoDB attribution

This is because over 80 of the 406 councils responsible for toilets now publish public toilet open data, thanks to the Local Government Association (LGA) Local Government Open Data Incentive Scheme, open to councils in England & Wales.

By developing a standard, the toilet data contains extra details that people need to meet their needs (open, accessible to them, attended, free, etc..). It also means it’s incredibly easy to use the data, as it can all be combined into 1 dataset from 80+.

To put this map in context:

The first toilet map I made, in 2010, was a Google Map of 56 Public and Community Toilets in Wandsworth. It took me 5 hours and a trip to a cemetery. 

The second, The Great British Public Toilet Map of 10000 toilets, has taken 3.5 years (so far), several thousand pounds, and the combined effort of developers, enthusiasts and hundreds of members of public.

The map above I made with no skill whatsoever:

  • I downloaded the .csv file containing all the data from http://schemas.opendata.esd.org.uk/PublicToilets (by clicking the ‘1’ at the bottom of the page).
  • I opened this in Excel and went ‘ooo!’.
  • I then uploaded the dataset to CartoDB using a free trial.
  • I clicked ‘View map’ and selected the 2 columns containing the Latitude and Longitude infomation from a drop-down list.

THAT’S IT. 

That didn’t take an hour. That took about 10 minutes. However it only showed a few hundred toilets, yet there were over a thousand rows of info in the .csv file.

On closer inspection, I found that the Lat & Long columns were a mix of Lat / Long and Northings/Eastings. So for those toilets that had the latter, I pasted the Northings/Eastings into a different column. I then found a site to convert them by googling ‘convert northings eastings into lat long’ – I used gridreferencefinder.com. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it wouldn’t be much work to use the Ordnance Survey’s own converter instead. I then used a VLookup function in Excel to enter in the corresponding Lat/Long for each Northing/Easting. I was quite pleased with this, but I could have used Copy/Paste.

I then uploaded this dataset, tided up the new map using the nice CartoDB interface and picked out which details would be shown when you click on each toilet. I’m still reeling at how easy it is.

Now, The Great British Public Toilet Map has 10000 toilets, 10 x the amount shown on this map, or listed on the LGA site and data.gov.uk.

This just serves to show the potential of more councils, and other providers (train stations, service stations, shopping centres) joining up to publish standard public toilet open data (or any open data), that could help the public or improve a public service, especially for those that need them most. 

May 21, 2015 at 11:34 am 1 comment

…mapping public toilets by council

There are 406 councils in the UK responsible for public toilets. We collected information on nearly all of them, either through their website information or through nearly 300 FOI requests to councils for The Great British Public Toilet Map. In January I coloured-in a map of the UK to show toilets per council.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 15.53.10

On Thursday I went to a Visualising Data workshop run by the Future Cities Catapult. They gave lots of advice on presenting data and using it to tell stories. For example, it’s important to choose the range of colours carefully so that it’s clear what you’re trying to convey, by using sites like colorbrewer2.org (as opposed to using whatever felt pens you can find in the office, see image 1).

They also proposed that just because you can present location data on a map, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way. This is definitely something to take on board, but not before I figure out how to make the above map digitally.

So I’ve used CartoDB to do just that. The interactive version, with useful things like Titles! and Keys! is here: http://cdb.io/1HuiPn0.  Meanwhile, here are still images.

(note: I’ve not included councils that have no toilets. This also includes some councils that do have toilets but didn’t give any data and we didn’t seek to count London councils at the time, so they are also blank. Also the free trial of CartoDB only allowed 50MB of data which wasn’t enough to import council boundaries for the whole UK, so this is just England & Wales :( )

First, I’ve remapped toilets per council:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 13.08.00

…which is a lot clearer.

Then, because it’s digital I could replot the data instantly and try other things relating to population and area. Toggling between toilets and population showed that broadly, councils with more people have more toilets. It also highlighted areas that are exceptions – noteably the national parks and seaside resorts – loads of toilets and very few people.

This also shows one of the limits, because toilets aren’t necessarily needed so much for residents but for visitors as well.

There are still exceptions. this map of people per toilet shows the huge range – from just 315 people/toilet (Isles of Scilly) to over 200K people sharing 1 public toilet (Solihull).

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 13.06.14

I don’t know what the optimum number of people per toilet is, but the range is alarming.

There is of course the old problem that this may also partially highlight the variety in the information given by different councils either by FOI or website, i.e. what they consider a ‘public toilet’.

However there’s enough bright red to make me think something is going wrong in those areas, and it’s worth a closer, more local investigation. I suspect there are also more interesting datasets to map than population or area, but I’m not sure where to start. Please send suggestions!

You can play with the interactive version at http://cdb.io/1EeCMqg.

May 18, 2015 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

..”the 40% decline in the last 10 years”

This morning an email through a very active public toilets mailing-list led me to look at publications on ‘Age-Friendly Cities’. One report called The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook by the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing contained this strangely familiar statistic:

Screenshot from An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook

Screenshot from An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook

The statistic implies a 40% reduction between 2004 – 2014. Yet this cannot be true, as the quote has been around for as long as I can remember.

So on what evidence is it based and to which 10 years does it refer?

The 2014 BBC News article cited in An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook attributes it to the British Toilet Association (BTA).

Last year [2013] the British Toilet Association estimated that there has been a 40% drop in the number of public toilets across the UK in the last 10 years. (BBC News, 2014)

The BTA’s website doesn’t include a press release from 2013 to verify this. The BBC may be referring to the same quote given by the BTA on the Today programme in August 2013.

In fact the oldest BBC News article that uses this statistic is from 2007. This article seemed to imply it was from Help the Aged research (now AgeUK), and refers not to a 10-year period but is instead ‘since 2001’ which was when the Audit Commission stopped collecting data on the number of public toilets:

[Help the Aged] wants to see the reinstatement of a national mapping exercise to determine the level of provision which, until 2001, was undertaken by the Audit Commission.

It is estimated that since 2001 toilet provision has fallen by 40%. (BBC News, 2007)

However this also didn’t quite pan out when I looked at Help the Aged’s excellent 2007 research publication Nowhere to Go, to which the BBC News article was referring. Whilst the report mentions the statistic in its introduction, it is not a finding from their research but again attributed to the BTA:

Until 2001 the Audit Commission carried out surveys of Britain’s public toilet provision, which showed that it was declining rapidly. Since then a campaigning organisation, the British Toilet Association, has estimated that public toilet provision has dropped a further 40 per cent to less than one public toilet for every 10,000 people in the UK, not taking visitors and tourists into account. (Help the Aged, 2007)

Nowhere to Go does produce its own findings based on over 1000 survey respondents:

80 per cent of respondents do not find it easy to find a public toilet.

78 per cent of respondents found that their local public toilets are not open when they need them.

(Help the Aged, 2007)

The “40% reduction in public toilets..’ fact crops up again in 2007-08 in written evidence to parliament for the Communities and Local Government Select Committee report into The Provision of Public Toilets. Despite this being printed around the same time as Nowhere to Go, the statistic now doesn’t refer to a decline ‘since 2001’, but now states ‘..in the last 10 years’, suggesting a comparison with data from 97-98. Although it is still attributed to the BTA, it doesn’t actually feature in their own written evidence to parliament. Instead it is quoted in the written evidence of the British Standards Institution (BSI):

The BTA contended that over 40% of public toilets have been closed in the last 10 years. (British Standards Institution in The Provision of Public Toilets, 2007-08)

It also features in the BTA’s written submission to the London Assembly for their 2011 update report Public Toilets in London, but without an implied time period and emphasising the lack of data.

Has the number of publicly accessible toilets in London increased since 2006?

BTA: Despite the fact that the overall number of public toilets in the UK has declined in recent years by at least 40%, and the lack of reliable data makes it impossible to track the decline, the previous Labour Government failed to accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that ‘the Government seeks a means of collecting this data, either through requiring local authorities to provide figures from their own areas or by charging the Audit Commission with resuming its collection of accurate information on the provision of public toilets. We cannot therefore factually answer this question. (British Toilet Association in Evidence log – Public Toilets – Greater London Authority, 2011)

What’s interesting is that the London Assembly’s original 2006 report ‘An Urgent Need: The State of London’s Public Toilets’ also found a 40% decline, but this was specifically for London’s public toilets, saying that:

figures show an incredible 40 per cent decline in London’s public toilets since 1999. (London Assembly, 2006)

The London Assembly’s report explains how they arrived at this finding. The research compares ‘the last year for which the Audit Commission collected these statistics (1999/2000)’ which states 701 public conveniences produced by local authorities in London; with information from 2005 compiled as a response to a parliamentary question put to the Deputy Prime Minister, recorded in Hansard, which states 419 public toilets in London. This figure comes from an analysis of provisional industry and commercial data held by the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), and represents the number of toilets in London for the last year for which they had data – 2004.

Whilst the London Assembly acknowledge that this is not comparing identical sources of data, they conclude that this represents a decline of 40% in the number of public toilets in London in just 5 years.

Hansard gives 5 years worth of public toilet data from the VOA, from 2000-2004. The data from 2000 estimates 500 public toilets in London for almost the same time period as the Audit Commission that estimated 701 public toilets. By the same logic, this would imply either a 30% reduction in toilets in London within one year (2000) OR more obviously, that the two organisations are using different definitions of ‘local authority public toilets’. A comparison between these two different data sources cannot be used to ascertain a decline over a period of time.

The GLA do go on to compare like-for-like, emphasising that the difference in the Valuation Office Agency figures from 2000 (500 toilets) to 2004 (419 toilets) still represents a significant 16.2% reduction in London’s public toilets in 4 years, and the largest for any region, thought significantly less than 40%. It’s also larger than the overall reduction in toilets for England (9.2% reduction) and more than double that for Wales (7.9% reduction).

This table shows data for the whole of England and some for Wales (but notably, not the whole UK) from the Valuation Office Agency as printed in Hansard, and Audit Commission data from both 1999-2000 and 2000-01 (it’s not clear why the GLA say 1999-2000 is the last year for which the Audit Commission has data – the latter showed 654 toilets for London)

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 14.06.19

Number of local authority public toilets

Comparing the Audit Commission data with Valuation Office Agency data for the whole of England for these years shows again how the latter produces a consistently lower number of public toilets. It also shows an overall decline of about 10% between 2000-2004 across England, however this time period is now over 10 years ago, so we cannot assume this has continued.The Valuation Office Agency continue to hold data on public conveniences which could be used to ascertain a % reduction in traditional public toilets in England and Wales. Their website allows you to search their 2010 database for the rateable value of property, but not to download open data of all properties of a type – say – public conveniences. Someone did send me such a file in 2012 showing 4626 toilets, however I don’t know how this was generated, for which year it is, or whether I’m even meant to have it! It does seem that these older stats are free-standing toilet blocks and so would be difficult to compare to the modern public service which encompasses toilets in other buildings such as shopping centres, public buildings or community toilet schemes.

My own count of public toilets is based on another methodology – toilets listed on council websites – and found 3447 public toilets in England in 2013 (excluding community toilet schemes). This could confirm a continued decline.. or it might just reveal how incomplete council websites are (a minority have no information on toilets at all).

Whilst I’ve not found the original research that found a 40% decline in public toilets for the UK over a 10 year period,  the statistic dates from at least 2007, making it 8 years out-of-date and widely misrepresented.

The fact that BBC News articles and research publications continue to print it illustrates the complete dearth of more recent toilet data.

That might gradually change if more councils choose the publish public toilet open data. However what does it say abot the lack of attention given to public toilets – a service at risk from local government cuts because councils don’t have to provide them – when we don’t even know the extent of the current service?

May 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm 3 comments


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