Ever visited India only to complain about the lack of hygienic toilets? Google is working towards making Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign a reality through the use of its Maps feature. The tech company has partnered with WaterAid, a non-profit to effect change in a problem that has confounded India for decades.

The country has the highest number of urban dwellers in the world (more than 157 million) without access to safe, private toilets. Under the Government’s Swachh Bharat campaign, institutions across the country are on a mission to build millions of toilets to make India open defecation free by 2019. Toilets, cleanliness and sanitation have suddenly become buzzwords.This massive campaign has led to many interesting ideas coming to the fore to help improve India’s sanitation situation. From promotion of low-cost toilet technologies to hiring distinctive mascots to deter people from open defecation and urination in Delhi, governments, NGOs and the media across India are all doing their bit to solve the complex challenges of ending open defecation and encouraging people to use toilets and adopt hygienic practices.

Google maps toilets

Recently, Silicon Valley giant Google also threw its strength behind this endeavor. In partnership with the National Ministry of Urban Development it has launched a toilet search feature in its popular app Google Maps. The idea is to make searching for a toilet as easy as searching for a restaurant, bank or petrol station. Initially launched in Delhi, it is expected to be rolled out in phases to cover other Indian cities.

At first glance, this is one of those simple ideas that makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. Finding a clean and hygienic public toilet in India is almost as difficult as trying to find water on Mars! This problem gets exacerbated  when one is traveling.

Crowd-sourcing cleanliness

The Google Maps public toilet search feature will primarily rely on crowd-sourced data for opening hours and cleanliness status of the toilets. This may also help push providers of such facilities, whether publicly or privately owned, to offer easily accessible and cleaner toilets.

I tried out this brand-new feature from two locations. The first location was Sector 63 of Noida, a burgeoning satellite city adjoining Delhi with many offices of small and midsize firms. When I searched using the Google feature, the nearest was shown to be about 3.5 km away.

For my second search I chose my place of work — the WaterAid India office, in south Delhi. The closest public toilet was shown to be about seven minutes away on foot, but the photo of the exterior did not mark it out to be well maintained. Other toilets listed were further away.

Ratings to improve feature

Ultimately, the toilet search feature will work best when large numbers of people, including poor people, can use it to push for improvement of public and community toilet facilities by regular sharing of ratings and photos. This will put pressure on those providing or managing those toilets to make them better.

With increased usage by people from different sections of society the feature might become more reliable and accurate over time. But it should not become yet another technology feature that is available to only those on the right side of the digital divide. The true success of this feature will be when people with disabilities, the  poor, and women can make use of it to demand safe, clean, and accessible toilet facilities in their localities.

By Anil Cherukupalli , Media and Communications Manager at WaterAid India. He tweets as @anilcheruk.

This article first appeared in Huffington Post Canada.

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