Putting toilets on the map with open data

Toilet map30 July 2012

By Giles Emerson

Most of us have at some point had that pressing need to know where the nearest public toilet is. Some people, for instance from older age groups, are even restricted from going out due to their need for regular toilet visits. But the solution might be at hand: the Great British Public Toilet Map.

The web-based map, which has now been launched for smartphone access, was developed as part of the ESRC-funded Tackling Ageing Continence through Theory Tools and Technology (TACT3). Developed by Research Fellow Jo-Anne Bichard and Research Associate Gail Ramster at the Royal College of Art, the website is also something of a test case for the use of 'open data' published by councils.

Apart from in supermarkets, transport hubs and shopping centres, public toilets are provided only on a voluntary basis by local authorities - without any government data on where public toilets are located, when they are open and who can use them.

At the outset of the project, the research team faced the task of coaxing data out of hundreds of councils who may or may not know what open data was, or may not see the point of publishing it.

Gail Ramster came up with the idea of the Great British Public Toilet Map as a public participation website, tracking which councils have published public toilet open data and which have not. Open data is machine-readable and free to use, so the website was designed to take in each council's published open data on toilets automatically. It is "connecting a public need to a public service", as Ramster puts it.

Currently, the Map focuses on toilet provision in London, including tube stations. Visitors to The Great British Public Toilet Map are presented with a map of London featuring more than 250 toilets marked by arrows, each one triggering an information box about the facilities on offer. The web users are invited to contact their London boroughs, via the website, if they see that information is missing or incorrect.

Since its launch, 14 London councils have been contacted in this way by members of the public requesting that they publish open data about their public toilets. Two councils have since provided this data and two others are considering it. However, with around 400 councils holding data on public toilets, the map still needs substantial development.

But there is hope. A similar website, developed by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing and launched in 2004, currently provides data on 15,000 toilets from over 1,000 organisations including local councils, and the data is available under open licence. The website receives 100,000 hits a month – presumably to the relief of many people.

"Clearly there is a need for this information, and open data should be made readily available for use," says Gail Ramster.

"I hope we can find the means to continue to build and develop the website – and to demonstrate a fundamental and important use of open data."