Questions about integrating the teen’s toilet map, but the point is, when you gotta go, you gotta go

Publicly accessible toilets labeled on bathroomaccess.com by Amith Saligrama.

Even First Amendment issues were raised on Tuesday as city staff debated whether a high school student’s map of public toilets should be on Cambridge’s open data portal, though everyone at the meeting of the open data review committee agreed on one thing: the map is a good resource that should be accessible to everyone.

The map, at bathroomaccess.com, is the work of Amith Saligrama, a student at Boston’s Commonwealth School, who categorizes Greater Boston’s restrooms into three categories: free facilities available year-round; seasonal ones, like port-a-potties; and those that are only partially accessible and may have a cost, such as in a café where the toilets are reserved for customers.

The inspiration for building the site was Saligrama’s grandparents, who ‘began to limit their daily walks due to a lack of access to toilets’, he said on his ‘about’ page. . “I realized there are a lot of people like my grandparents – parents with toddlers, taxi and delivery drivers – who need access to the toilet.”

The question in Cambridge was whether Saligrama’s work should continue on the city’s growing Open Data portal alongside its 363 existing assets, the most recent of which range from budgets and crime reports to a daily newspaper. of transportation safety accidents and a dataset of municipal electricity use for the past year. . All were created by city staff or come from state or federal agencies, said Josh Wolff, manager of the city’s open data program.

“Amith reached out to us several weeks ago and said, ‘Hey, I have this really awesome resource…and I’d like you to link it or host it on your website,'” Wolff said. But Wolff could only give one answer: “It’s a larger discussion.”

During it, staff discussed how to ensure that information is kept up to date, if the city would direct people to restrooms with complications – such as at fire stations, where an emergency might call. everyone – and whether publishing an individual’s dataset online would result in others requesting their own dataset be published, despite lower quality or less usefulness.

“This potentially opens a Pandora’s box,” said city demographer Cliff Cook. “Go back to the early days of government websites when people thought the web was going to be the solution to all problems. They quickly realized that if you leave the door open, all kinds of people come in that you might not necessarily expect.

The city is already grappling with a government-provided but flawed dataset of electric vehicle charging sites that can direct sometimes desperate drivers to places they can’t go, like company garages, said Cook.

City spokesman Lee Gianetti agreed that the city risks losing the ability to say no to a dataset provided by a member of the public, and that to “choose what is going to be released and what is not not going to be published,” it would be necessary to get an opinion from the city’s legal department on the ramifications of the First Amendment.

How to objectively verify the quality and accuracy of datasets offered by members of the public – or, alternatively, how to signal to users that the data was of a potentially different quality than that offered directly by the city.

There are already examples of external or hybrid datasets, council members noted: Cambridge’s Community Development Department has hybrid datasets on green buildings based on LEED certification and median apartment rents by room count that borrows from data mined by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Cook said.

Saligrama, who was on the call, suggested the adults were overthinking the issue, as the data used on bathroomaccess.com was all public, with much of it coming from city parks and public works staff.

“These data are not magic. Access to my bathroom is not something irreproducible. You don’t have to rely on me at all,” said Saligrama, who even dismissed the idea of ​​needing credit if the city decided to create its own bathroom card. “I’m just saying that this kind of information about public toilets would be useful for residents of Cambridge.”

A middle ground suggested during the conversation was to direct people to the Saligrama site without hosting it – the solution Somerville town officials came up with for their website’s “Getting Around Somerville” page, and something the Cambridge Open Data Portal is already doing for other assets.

“There are a lot of public maps I’ve seen on your website and many more that talk about water stations and places to walk around. There are a lot of terms that say we should be more active,” Saligrama said. “Why can’t we also have a map with Cambridge toilets? That’s also a fundamental part of being active outdoors.