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Mapping and the municipality

September 24, 2013 by

How can a municipal body plan for new public toilets in the city when it does not have adequate information about the location and condition of existing toilets, and does not have the time to physically survey 426 square kilometres of its territory in a matter of days? In lieu of a physical survey, Transparent Chennai proposed the next best alternative – a virtual mapping of the locations of existing toilets and identifying space for proposed ones. The Corporation of Chennai is planning to install prefabricated toilets in the city but it does not have the information it needs to make informed decisions on issues such as where to locate toilets, how many toilets the city needs, and the type of users the toilet should primarily cater to. The data created during this mapping exercise has the potential to change the way the Corporation works – from its usual “fire fighting” problem-solving mode, to a less frenzied and more considered view of how best to plan for the city.

Over three weeks, nearly all the 200 junior engineers (JEs) in the city streamed into our office armed with lists containing addresses of existing and proposed toilets, and paper maps of their wards. Using Google Engine Lite, they marked the locations of the existing toilets with placemarks and added descriptions to each toilet point as well – how many seats the toilet had, whether it was being used, or whether it had gone to cede and was slated for demolition. Adding the location of the proposed toilets was not so simple. The JEs had some spirited discussions amongst themselves and there was some back and forth with their colleagues in field to resolve various issues like whether there would be space for the proposed toilet, whether it was too close to a place of worship and whether there would be any objection from the public. After the exercise, we downloaded the KMLs from Maps Engine Lite, converted them into shapefiles and then – voila – prepared some maps!

Image 1: Map of the location of existing and proposed toilets in Zone 9

During this exercise, the problems with municipal data and the way the municipality functions became all too apparent. For instance, the list of proposed locations for toilets was created sometime ago and the officials who had contributed to the list have since been transferred to other posts. The current group of JEs were not all aware of this list and had a slightly different view of where, if at all any, new toilets should be constructed. They were not aware of the design of the new toilets and had the standard design of CoC toilets in mind when estimating space availability. There was also no clarity on the methodology and criteria used to draw up this list of proposed locations for toilets. Interestingly, many toilets that were in the list of existing toilets existed only on paper but had been demolished in reality. This list was not updated with the latest information and this is probably why the sum total of toilets in Chennai changes from day to day (Table 1). What I found most interesting was that some JEs were reluctant to propose new toilets because they did not want to add the maintenance of the new infrastructure to their list of responsibilities!




Newspaper reports (here and here)


Informal discussion with reporters


Informal discussion with Corporation officials

Table 1: Several estimates for the number of public toilets in Chennai

Our mapping methodology had some glitches too – our internet connection failed several times, and Google Streets basemap was not very accurate. Many small streets were absent from the map, some roads meandered in the wrong direction and slums were often depicted as grey areas with no detail. Many JEs, particularly those working at the periphery of the city, had trouble finding landmarks to navigate through their wards. In sharp contrast to this, the paper maps that they had for reference were very detailed and came in handy. Many JEs had added details like sewer lines, lamp posts, manhole covers and other details with pens of different colours. These maps, if scanned and digitised could form a basemap of Chennai that is rich in information and locally prepared. Perhaps this is what we can do to create a repository of data about the city that can be used for the planning and monitoring of all civic services in Chennai.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai