ODI Showcase – winner’s Q&A: Great British Toilet Map
We chat with Gail Ramster about her ideas behind winning ODI Showcase project Great British Toilet Map, and what the team has in store
Hi! What's your idea in a nutshell?
The Great British Public Toilet Map project has been running for nearly two years. In that time we’ve built up a database of over 10,000 toilets from open data and crowdsourcing to help people find toilets when away from home. Now we’d like to take it a step further, by analysing the map’s data to find out what it can tell us about the way in which public toilets are provided in the UK and who can access them. We’d also like to investigate how provision compares across the country, factoring in differences in population, environment and age which could affect local demand for facilities.
Sounds interesting! What gave you this idea?
The original project was the output of a two-year research study called TACT3 by The Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. The aim was to help people manage continence concerns when away from home. Since TACT3 concluded, we’ve seen many reports of toilets closing and local campaigns to save them. The lack of national data makes it difficult to say how these local stories reflect the national picture, and whether public toilets are under threat or simply changing to a service that is increasingly provided privately through shopping centres etc. If our data can shed light on these questions, hopefully this will be another way in which we can help maintain universal access to toilets particularly for those who rely on it for their quality of life.
When did you first get excited about open data?
In 2010, after our initial user research, I could see how personalised toilet maps showing just the types of toilets a user can access in the areas they visit would be useful. But I needed access to the national toilet database, and there wasn’t one. In fact data.gov.uk had only one open dataset for toilet locations in the London Borough of Brent.
Still, inspired by Brent’s precedent, I started contacting other open data enthusiasts at local councils identified through openlylocal.com. Their enthusiasm and willingness to create open datasets of public toilet locations inspired me to keep going.
Where do you see open data in 10 years?
I hope that open data becomes an integral part of our lives, where we assume data will be open by default. For example we’ve seen increased access to data around our energy consumption, allowing us to make better choices for our homes, and transport data that gives more flexibility when travelling in a city. I hope in 10 years people will be increasingly conscious of this empowerment that open data gives them in their lives, encouraging more ‘data for good’, such as changing our shopping habits to be more environmentally sustainable, or, as with our project, fostering a better understanding of how public services can be accessed or transformed.
What are your plans for your project, and how will you achieve them?
The aim is to make The Great British Public Toilet Map into the national open dataset for publicly accessible toilets, creating the very dataset that we were frustrated to find didn’t exist when we started researching toilet data in 2010. This would allow others to create more widespread toilet information by including it into other services like transport apps. Before we get there, though, we need to ensure the sustainability of the project so we can assure the ongoing maintenance of the database. It’s a project that’s been going for six years and we’re nearer than ever to our goal, so we won’t be giving up anytime soon!
The ODI Showcase supports projects that demonstrate how open data can be used to bring longstanding benefits to individuals, organisations and society. The ODI provides grant funding, mentoring and promotional support to maximise these impacts. Find out more here.