by Matt Hickman
World Toilet Day, an annual United Nations-sanctioned day of observance drawing attention to the 2.4 billion people around the world without access to clean and safe sanitation, dropped this past weekend in typically splashy fashion: a Coldplay and Jay-Z concert, the unveiling of a Gates Foundation poop smell-blocking perfume and enough well-meaning potty puns to last well into the new year.
While World Toilet Day is global in scope, much of the awareness-raising, activism-inspiring action this year — aforementioned Coldplay and Jay-Z concert included — was centered around India, a country where an estimated 70 percent of households in both rural and urban areas don’t enjoy the luxury of having a functioning commode. For a majority of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, defecating and urinating in the open is the norm.
Similar to other developing nations, cellphones are far more prevalent than toilets in India. As backwards as this may seem to Westerners, it’s a reality for millions of Indian households. According to a 2012 census, 60 percent of Indian households surveyed have one or more mobile devices while only 36.4 percent of households have a toilet.
Given these statistics, a new partnership between Google and India’s Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) seems like a match in clean sanitation heaven: the introduction of a Google Maps tool that points users in the direction of toilets that are clean, safe and open for public use. As reported by the International Business Times India, the toilet-finder tool is due to launch this month in Delhi, India’s second most populous city, before potentially becoming available in other major population cities, although the timeline is unclear.
How the app works
Of course, the tool, dubbed Google Toilet Locator, won’t solve India’s underlying toilet shortage problem or reverse cultural attitudes regarding al fresco urination. However, it does help on-the-go Delhi residents more easily find somewhere to go if need be. While we’ve written about urban toilet-finder apps in the past, those have been more or less spurred by convenience (and excessive drinking). Google Toilet Locator, piloted in a city of 25 million where public toilets are far and few between, is more driven by necessity
An unnamed official with the MoUD explains to the IBTimes India that the Google Toilet Locator will pull up all known public lavatories — sulabh shauchalays — across the National Capital Region along with harder-to-find loos located inside of shopping malls, gas stations, hospitals, etc. Listing both deluxe flush situations and standard no-frills squat options, the tool itself is integrated into Google Maps. Mobile users simply must open the app and enter one of numerous keywords in English or Hindi — “toilet,” “restroom,” “lavatory,” “swachhata,” “shauchalay,” etc. — and they’ll be directed to the nearest option based on their location.
Just like a restaurant or retail establishment, Delhi residents — and visitors — can use Google Toilet Locator to rate and comment on specific public restrooms, either providing a glowing recommendation or warning others to stay away.
Explains an official with the MoUD: “The system being put in place relies heavily on crowdsourcing, with people’s feedback helping fuel it. Therefore, if a person finds that a toilet is not clean, he or she can give it a bad review or rating, the facility for which is available on Google Maps.”
Considering that many Delhi residents who will be potentially using the app don’t have a toilet of their own at home, knowing if a public restroom is clean — or even open — is all the more important. Foreign tourists aside, for a large majority of folks using Google Toilet Locator, there isn’t the option of “holding it until I get home.”
Google Toilet Locator is just one of many events and initiatives launched in conjunction with World Toilet Day, which as is tradition, boasts an annual theme. This year, in order to spotlight the oft-overlooked link between economic livelihoods and sanitation, the theme is “Toilets and Jobs.”
For most, the topic of toilets and jobs usual revolves around ill-timed toilet paper shortages, privacy peccadilloes, rude noises or knowing to avoid the men’s room for at least 15 minutes after Ron from accounting goes in. For others, the workplace — and perhaps home, as well — might completely lack a clean, safe bathroom option. Poor sanitation has a direct link to economic well-being — that is, things like absenteeism, exhaustion and decreased productivity rise when employees don’t have access to a toilet at work or at home. In addition to impacting performance, the illnesses associated with poor sanitation keep workers off the job, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for good.
As the World Toilet Day website stresses, providing women with adequate and private bathroom facilities is of particular importance in developing areas.
And because it just wouldn’t be World Toilet Day without a video featuring dancing animated poos, here’s this year’s offering, which in keeping with the jobs theme, also features a variety of hard-working, life-saving “professional” toilets.