Clean Act

Google app to locate city toilets

The Swachh Bharat Mission has been a game changer in ensuring an open defecation-free India. As a part of the initiative, states and urban local bodies (ULBs) are undertaking toilet construction and municipal solid waste management. As of May 23, 2017, a total of 3,114,249 households and 115,786 community/public toilets have been constructed under the mission.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has realised the need to move beyond simply measuring the output (in terms of number of toilets constructed) to assessing the actual outcome of the project. Therefore, the level of usage and functionality of the toilets built needs to be analysed to understand the progress made towards eliminating open defecation. Also, easy identification and accessibility of such facilities by the public is important to discourage open defecation. In this regard, in November 2015, the MoUD launched the Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator mobile application. It was launched as a pilot project in five cities in the NCR region – Delhi, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Noida, and two cities in Madhya Pradesh – Indore and Bhopal. The ministry implemented the project in association with the Quality Council of India (QCI).

Application in use

The application offers two types of functionalities, one for the administrator and the other for citizens. The administrator version can be used by various ULBs to add their cities’ toilets to the database. Unlike the user version, toilets added through the administrator version are automatically considered as verified. In addition, the administration can verify the toilets added by citizens and include additional information like the availability of sanitary waste disposal equipment and disabled-friendly toilet blocks.

Meanwhile, the citizens’ version allows users to access toilet locations, add information about toilets and submit feedback. The application identifies the location of users and provides a list of toilets in their vicinity. In order to narrow down the search criteria according to their requirements, users can also apply various search filters to their query. Filters can be applied for gender-wise toilets, type of toilet seats available, payment mechanisms – free usage or user charges applicable – and the overall rating of the facilities. The application also provides information regarding the working hours of the facility and its distance from the user’s current location. Once users identify a toilet that they wish to use, the application allows them to navigate their way to its location using GPS. In addition, pictures of the toilet blocks are available, making it easier for users to locate the facility.

Besides locating toilet facilities, citizens can use the application to add information to database, rate the services of facilities, upload pictures of the complex and write reviews. Such crowdsourced data regarding cleanliness and accessibility of toilets allow civic agencies to assess the condition of the toilet complexes and take corrective actions if required.

Google Toilet Locator

In order to expand the reach of the toilet locator project, the MoUD collaborated with Google Asia Pacific Pte Limited to make these toilet locations accessible through the Google Maps platform. The Google Toilet Locator initiative was launched in December 2016, enabling users to search for toilets by using key words such as “swachh” or “public toilet” on Google Maps. The search result provides the same information as the Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator app. A look at the project process…

Adding information about a city’s toilets into the MoUD’s database requires extensive surveys of the toilets located in a particular city. This includes identification and mapping of toilets owned and operated by both ULBs and private operators (such as toilets located in malls, commercial complexes, district centres, petrol pumps, etc.). As a part of the pilot project, the survey was carried out by municipal workers in Bhopal and Indore, while third-party assessment bodies were hired for the purpose in the NCR. The surveyors were equipped with Android phones and tablets to undertake the survey and geo-tag photographs of toilet complexes on the portal.

The MoUD is the sole custodian and point of contact for the information collected from these surveys. This information is uploaded by the ministry on Google’s Partner Dash platform. The platform verifies if any technical issues and gaps exist in the uploaded data feed, and prompts an error alert for correcting the information. Therefore, only accurate data is available on the platform. Once all the information has been uploaded, Google takes about one and a half to two months to successfully process and publish it. Once the information is live, users are able to access it and locate toilets in their vicinity using the MoUD’s mobile application or Google Maps.

Current status

As of February 2017, a total number of 6,276 toilet blocks have been listed on these platforms. While 5,162 public toilets have been listed in the NCR, the remaining 1,114 have been listed in Bhopal (703) and Indore (411). The search results not only account for toilets created under the Swachh Bharat Mission, but also those located near malls, hospitals, bus and railway stations, fuel stations, metro stations and in community toilet complexes.

The application has been installed by more than 10,000 users in these cities. It has an average user rating of 3.3 on 5 (as on May 23, 2017) on Google’s Android-based Play Store. Reportedly, in the NCR, an average of about 50-60 users per day access the information provided on the application.

Following the successful implementation of the pilot, the MoUD is now planning to expand its outreach and launch it in another 85 cities by October 2, 2017. Some of the key cities where this initiative will be launched are Agra, Ajmer, Ahmedabad, Bhilai, Bhubaneswar, Dhanbad, Greater Mumbai, Guwahati, Jaipur, Jammu, Kochi, Vijayawada and Greater Bengaluru. Going forward, the ministry is also planning to launch an incentive mechanism to encourage users to provide ratings and feedback for the toilet facilities. The MoUD expects the incentives to increase the popularity and usage of the application.

Recommendations from QCI

Having successfully implemented the pilot project in the NCR and Madhya Pradesh, the QCI has released a list of recommendations based on its experience. These can be considered by civic agencies while expanding the project’s reach to other cities and towns.

The QCI realised that surveyors often map same toilets again due to the lack of clearly demarcated zones within the cities. In order to avoid such duplicate mapping, it suggests that cities should be demarcated into smaller areas or wards for the purpose of survey works. In addition, a sticker or a physical marker can be placed on public toilets that have already been assessed by surveyors.

Survey workers should also be provided with guidelines on clicking appropriate images of the toilets. Only pictures that can help in determining the toilet’s location, such as those of the entrance and building, should be clicked and uploaded on the application.

Another problem faced by the QCI was the lack of standardised addresses for toilets. Surveyors often type incorrect spellings or incomplete addresses of toilet locations, making it difficult for users to locate the facility. Therefore, they should be provided with a list of drop-down options to choose their locations from, instead of having to type them out. Further, the application used to undertake the surveys should be equipped to automatically capture the surveyor’s coordinates through GPS and thus locate toilet facilities.

Meanwhile, depending on the quality of internet connectivity, sometimes the locations captured by the surveyors may not be accurate. To ensure that accurate coordinates of toilets are captured, the devices used during the survey must fulfil the minimum specification criteria for the assessment application to run smoothly. The device must be able to fetch the coordinates quickly even in areas with poor internet connectivity. At the same time, surveyors must be trained to wait for the device to sync the location coordinates before submitting the information.

Often, application interfaces for updating the operating hours of toilets can be complicated for surveyors to understand and therefore incorrect information may be uploaded. The interface should be made easier and ideally a 12-hour format should be followed so that it is simple to use.

Following these recommendations could significantly assist other ULBs and implementing agencies to execute the project in a more efficient and time-bound manner. The QCI’s learnings provide important insights into the day-to-day problems encountered by surveyors as they do not have enough technological exposure.

Conclusion

In the past few years, the MoUD has embraced technology solutions to expand the outreach of its projects and facilitate their implementation. It has recognised that simply constructing toilets will not be enough to achieve an open defecation-free country. Deploying such technology solutions and creating more awareness will go a long way in increasing the usage of public and community toilets. Thus, by launching the Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator, the ministry has readily tapped into the growing telecommunication market and rising number of smartphone users in the country. The subsequent expansion of this project to other cities is expected to significantly enhance the outcome under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

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