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Public Toilets and Open Data: A Love Story

Truly useful apps map the most universal public facility.

by / August 9, 2012

We’ve all been there. Strolling an urban shopping district or visiting an outdoor festival when nature calls. You begin scanning the landscape for your options: Duck into a business you haven’t patronized and risk being turned away, or keep walking, fingers crossed for an expeditious solution to appear like an oasis in the desert.

Cities embracing transparency and open government are finding that publishing data sets on public resources are bringing about many new apps for public use. It seems logical to assume there’s an … uh … appetite for information on public bathrooms, right?

You’re in luck if you’re outside North America. In this case, the U.S. isn’t No. 1.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Great British Public Toilet Map grew out of a program aimed at using technology to help improve the mobility of Great Britain’s senior citizens. The theory is that senior citizens don’t go out as often due to fears over the availability of restroom facilities at regular intervals.

Researchers from the Royal College of Art populate a Web-based map — also smartphone-enabled — with information obtained from local authorities. The site encourages users to contact councils in London to request that they share their data on public restrooms. To date, ESRC reports that two London councils have obliged, and two others are considering it. Users click on a facility plotted on the map, and get details including exact address, hours of operation and whether it’s wheelchair accessible.

Australia’s National Public Toilet Map is a comprehensive, feature-rich list of public restrooms throughout the country. The country’s department of health and aging maintains the site.

Brussels, Belgium; and Paris also have open data sets for toilets.

Efforts in the U.S.A. have been more scattered. While many U.S. restroom locator apps have sprung up for users of Apple and Android products, most seem to rely on crowdsourcing from users to populate the sites. Have2P reveals which restrooms are open only to customers, and offers user reviews on cleanliness, and locations mapped using GPS. The Sit or Squat app (brought to you by Procter & Gamble) collects data on public restrooms around the globe. Users can add facility information, including features and ratings.

Open data leaders in the U.S. are making many kinds of public facility data available to the public, fueling apps like Adopt A Hydrant, engaging volunteers in cities like Boston and Madison, Wis., in keeping fire hydrants accessible throughout the snowy season. Police and fire stations, public parks, senior centers and libraries are often offered up by cities as well.

The chances of a national Adopt a Restroom app seems far less likely because a) it’s gross; and b) comprehensive data sets are few and far between.

The recently launched Cities page on, as previously reported in Government Technology, now features data sets from San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York in the hopes that a multi-jurisdictional clearinghouse of information will lead to applications with benefits beyond individual cities. A search reveals that to date, Seattle is the only participant to offer a short list of public restroom facilities, excluding those in public parks.

Have we missed open data sets about public toilets that are worth mentioning? Tell us in the comments section below.


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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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