Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can Digital Keys provide relief to the decline in public toilets?

In this blog post we’ll explore if the use of Digital Keys can help manage public toilets better, and stop their decline.

In the ‘Melbourne is the worst public toilet city in the world story' many examples were given of public toilets recently being closed in malls and train stations. A new multi-million train station development was cited as not having any provision of public toilets. 

Some of the comments to the story are hilarious - such as ‘the idea to build more toilets just got dumped on’, and ‘it smells like a victory to bean counters’. But some comments raise serious questions about society as a whole (or atleast about some societies in the world like Australia, or America).

For example some labelled the decline of public toilets a symbolic decline on our civilization, and a return to the 19th century public health system. Andrew from Reservoir commented, ‘Apart from convenience public toilets send a message of humanity and compassion – they reaffirm the importance of public space as a place of importance, rather than a wasteland to be negotiated between home, work and shopping’.

Many people commented about their experiences of having to urinate in the streets because they couldn't find public toilets, or every morning on their way to work walking past laneways reeking of urine, or having to walk miles to find toilets in shopping centres.  

The urinating in public thing has featured heavily in popular culture too. I remember an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond”, with Ray joking about Deborah shouldn't take a job in New York City, because she would 'have to put up with the smell of urine everyday'. And in an episode of “Sex and the City”, Carrie awoke early so she could read her book review in the New York Times Newspaper, and she had to walk past a guy urinating in the street - and this was supposed to be a typical New York early morning.

Having worked as an Asset Manager in Local Government, I know all too well about public toilets, their management and the problems and costs associated with them.  

I've also traveled to dozens of countries, and lived in Asia for 3 years, so I've seen many examples of public toilet provision actually working too. 

For example in Japan every convenience store has clean public toilets open 24/7, and convenience stores in Japan feel like they’re almost on every street corner. 

And in Europe, it was common to pay 2 Euro’s to use a public toilet to a guy that sits in front of the toilet, and when you leave he cleans the wash basin down with a cloth, and scrubs the bowl if necassary. He also checks the back of the cubicle door you've been in to see if you have graffitied the back of the door. The European public toilets were always clean, they didn’t smell, there was no line up to use them, and they seemed to be easy to find in all the common tourist sites. I always thought it 2 euro’s well spent.

As an Asset Manager in a local government we paid a private security company to go around and lock all the public toilets at night – between 10-11pm every night. Some of the security logs made fun reading – here is one of my favourites, ‘9:55pm entered Male public toilets on Smith Street – found male and female in end cubicle. Waited 5 minutes for male and female to get dressed. Locked doors and left’.  

Believe it or not - this was actually a common log entry. Graffiti, vandalism and drug use was also a daily occurrence in our public toilets, and the bills for repairs just never let up. 

I spoke daily to the cleaners of the toilets too, and after a few months in the job, they told me there was nothing that they hadn't seen in the Council public toilets they cleaned daily.

The heralded solution to the Australia Local Governments public toilet problem in the late nineties was ‘the Exeloo’ check it out here – 

The Exeloo at a train station in Adelaide, Australia

A New Zealand invention, the Exeloo is a large metal building with usually one or two toilets which are automated and self cleaning.  The automated parts include sensors on the taps, sensors on the toilet paper roll holder and sensors and timers on the doors. If you take longer than 10 minutes in the Exeloo the doors automatically open.  They're also advertised as ‘vandal proof’, and they play relaxing classical music too!

Although we found out that when it comes to sledgehammers the Exceloo's are pretty much like anything, and that is they aren't entirely vandalproof. 

Yes, someone one night had a go at one of our Council Exeloo’s with a sledgehammer destroying the toilet bowl, the sink and driving holes through the doors and walls. 

The cleaner told me that he thought someone with a mental illness and a sledgehammer must have cracked one evening, after earlier being in the Exeloo longer than ten minutes and door opened embarrassing him in front of people waiting, or he was only able to get 3 sheets of toilet paper off the toilet roll, and he had to walk around for the rest of the day with poopy pants, so he came back late one night with a sledgehammer to get his revenge on the Exeloo! This was a rare incident, and I personally think the Exeloo's are fantastic - but for the price and convenience, are they worth it? - they cost upwards of $50,000 for one toilet.

So if we know that public toilets are being closed in cities around the world because they’re too expensive to maintain, they’re targets for vandalism, graffiti, drug use, and ‘anti-social behaviour’, then lets explore other possibilities such as Digital Keys.

By installing Digital Keys onto public toilet doors it could create the opportunity for the community to take responsibility for the toilets management and maintenance – a bit like the guy in the Europe toilets checking to see if I had graffitied the back of the toilet door after I had left. 

With Digital Keys, to gain access to the toilet, you could ask the public to register their details with the local council on a smartphone app (or whoever runs the toilet). This could take 5 seconds by registering with Facebook or LinkedIn, and then you are then automatically texted or sent inside the app a one-time digital key, which you then use to open the toilet door. Your name and the time you used the toilet is recorded in a cloud database.

When you leave the door locks, and the toilets remain locked for the rest of the time - day or night. Also on the smartphone app there is a reporting function where you can take photo’s of graffiti, vandalism, etc, and then email it immediately to the local council. There could even be a cupboard with digital keys which you can access to get cleaning products and tools if you feel inclined, and lock them back after you've cleaned and left.

Because the person before you has registered their name and contact details with the council, and the time of use is logged, then if the person before them didn't report any damage, then it must mean that this person could then be held responsible or even liable for the damage. If people know that they could be traced and liable for any damage caused, then perhaps they’re not going to do anything untoward in the toilets?

I don’t know if this theory would work – but that’s the whole point of this post, and every other post we write – that is give digital keys a go and to see if helps solve problems, changes society attitudes, change people's behaviors and improve our society.

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