Researcher Says Google Toilet Locator App Will Help, but Larger Change is Needed in India

Published November 21, 2016

Google’s Toilet Locator mobile app could provide an innovative solution to India’s open defecation problem in urban locales, but major challenges remain in mitigating the issue in rural areas where it’s most common, according to Dr. Pavani K. Ram, co-director of the community for global health equity at the University at Buffalo and an expert on global sanitation issues.

“While there is more access to improved sanitation facilities, there’s been a lag in behavior change,” says Dr. Ram, whose research focuses on methods to change India’s cultural norms around handwashing to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. “The barriers to using latrines range widely. India is a country of many cultures, and not one cultural norm.”

Sanitation has become more of a global priority, particularly in India. A lot of energy and momentum has gone toward increasing access to and use of improved sanitation, Dr. Ram says. However, access is not enough. “Just because we construct it, doesn’t mean we use it,” she says. “When we achieve major changes in social norms related to sanitation use, then we are poised to realize health benefits.”

Earlier this month Google announced a partnership with India’s Ministry of Urban Development to pilot the Toilet Locator app. The app employs Google Maps to help users find the nearest and cleanest toilets, just as people commonly search for restaurants or gas stations nearby.

The need is great in this country of 1.25 billion people, where 774 million lack access to improved private toilets, according to a report last year from WaterAid.

Many rural parts of the world have had only limited sanitation for decades, Dr. Ram says. And in some low- and middle-income countries, larger efforts have been focused on providing access to improved water sources than latrines.  “It had been a taboo topic for a long time. Nobody wanted to talk about it,” Dr. Ram says. “It turns out it’s not enough to improve water sources if you still have an environment where humans, especially children, are at risk because of a lack of access to sanitation facilities.”

Google’s Toilet Locator app likely will help Indians in urban communities who have smartphones find latrines. It may also put needed pressure on cities and towns. “An app showing clean and dirty latrines could be helpful. If enough people use it, it could hold municipalities to task by indicating, ‘This toilet is dirty, you need to do a better job,’” says Dr. Ram, who is also an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Still, the challenge will be in creating change in less populated parts of India. “We know lots of rural areas where open defecation is happening and people don’t have access to smartphones,” Ram says. “While cellphone use is increasing, it’s going to take time to get there. So this is one neat and novel approach to what is a large, systemic challenge.”