Earth & Conservation

Google Toilet Locator Aims to Curb India's Public Poo Problem

Nearly 620 million people in India defecate in the open, but Google's Toilet Locator is trying to change that.

<p> Cathal McNaughton/Reuters</p>

Millions of people in India dodge human excrement in the street on a daily basis, while at the same time trying to avoid the horrible smell that permeates the air. Enter: The Google Toilet Locator.

Within the next 15 days, India's Ministry of Urban Development plans to launch the Google Toilet Locator in partnership with the tech giant, allowing people in India to find the nearest clean toilet using Google Maps on their phone. The technology is based on crowdsourcing, similar to the way apps like Yelp provide information on restaurants.

Nearly 620 million people in India defecate in the open, which has significantly contributed to water contamination, causing an ongoing public health crisis. Drinking water with fecal bacteria can cause diarrhea among other illnesses, something that's especially dangerous in children because it can result in malnutrition and even death.

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Open-defecation has been a common practice for centuries, not only in India but in other countries as well. "Open defecation is both a historic and a contemporary practice in settings throughout the world," Korydon Smith, a professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, told Seeker. "It has gained attention in India because of the size and density of many cities along with global and nationwide efforts to be "open-defecation-free."

According to UNICEF, access to toilets in India is increasing, but for the poorest 20 percent of the country, open-defecation is essentially the norm.

"There are a number of barriers that impede the transition to the use of private and communal toilets and latrines," Smith said. "Lack of funds, know-how, and space for constructing latrines, the need for maintenance, a transformation of cultural norms, and other factors hinder adoption."

In 2014, UNICEF India launched the Poo2Loo campaign to raise awareness about the problem. They produced an animated YouTube video that detailed one Indian man's daily run-ins with poo, from morning to night.

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While the video is lighthearted and funny, it also brought some serious concerns to light. Many people in India may recognize that public defecation is a problem but they don't understand exactly why. The video fills in some information gaps by showing how fecal matter can pollute water systems, putting everyone's health at risk.

The Poo2Loo campaign has since ended, but the launch of the Toilet Locator indicates that sanitation progress is being made. The technology will be piloted in India's National Capital Region (NCR), but in time the government plans to give the entire country access. A MoUD official told the IB Times, "Mechanisms are in place for the facility to be scaled up, and for it to reach all the 2,041 urban local bodies of the country."

Smith agrees that the Toilet Locator is a good resource for urban areas, but stresses that technology cannot solve India's sanitation problem all together.

"The Google Toilet Locator might add to the toolkit and make a difference in some urban settings... but it cannot overcome situations where latrines are sparse, such as rural settings, where restrooms are not well maintained, or where toilets are not accessible to people with disabilities or secure for women and girls," he said. "Meeting the needs of vulnerable populations like older adults and young children is a majority priority in order to fulfill the UN goal of 'clean sanitation for all.'"

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