Startup Mantra: Locate clean, accessible washrooms at a click - Hindustan Times
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Startup Mantra: Locate clean, accessible washrooms at a click

BySalil Urunkar
Jun 16, 2023 10:55 PM IST

ToiletSeva, a social enterprise and platform for sharing information about “out of home” toilets to address the age-old problem in India

Amol Bhinge, a Punekar by birth and now a US citizen, visits his family, friends, and relatives every year, but the most “fearful” part of his journey would not surprise you. It was the same which most of us also experience but may not speak about in public – the conditions of washrooms at commercial establishments or public and open spaces.

Amol Bhinge (HT PHOTO)
Amol Bhinge (HT PHOTO)

A few years back, when Amol went to buy jewellery from a renowned brand store on Laxmi Road, he was stunned by the lackadaisical attitude of the staff towards the cleanliness of washrooms despite his specific request to clean it. After stepping out of the store, the incident triggered Amol’s thoughts and he came up with a solution “ToiletSeva”, a social enterprise and platform for sharing information about “out of home” toilets to address the age-old problem in India. The platform is designed to help travellers, commuters, students, elderly population, women, and anyone, looking for usable washrooms, which may be located inside hotels or cafes, fuel stations, schools or even be paid private and public toilets.

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NMV alumnus

Amol is an alumnus of the Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya (NMV) and College of Engineering Pune (COEP). After completing his engineering degree in instrumentation and control, Amol moved to the US in 2000 and pursued MS electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota. Amol made his mark in the semiconductor design and chip design industry over his two-decade long career and now serves as director at Intel Corporation.

Amol said, “I love my job and with multiple patents and publications I want to continue doing it. Over the years, I opted for US citizenship, but I do visit India frequently to meet my parents, sister, and wife’s relatives. I have travelled across India for business purposes as well. During these visits, I have personally as well as my friends and family members too experienced that we do not find good, clean, safe, and hygienic washrooms outside our homes. I prefer saying “out-of-home” instead of public toilet since it captures a bigger spectrum. So, when we say out-of-home toilets, it includes public and community toilets, private offices, commercial establishments like malls, multiplexes, fuel stations, hotels, cafes, and restaurants, etc. India is aspiring to be a developed economy and we are already the third largest economy in the world now, but clean washrooms is the fundamental need which we must solve. It is not a political issue or limited to any location too.”

“Post the trigger event on Laxmi Road store, I started looking for alternatives. I do not expect small joints to have a washroom within their premises, but brands can certainly have. For example, some coffee shops charge a bomb to their customers, but it is more about overall ambience, including clean and spacious washrooms than the product they are selling. I realised if I can offer this information in a searchable format through a platform, I can scale it up across different businesses and demography too,” Amol said.

Prototype

While deliberating on the platform development, Amol discussed the idea with his friend, a techie who is also based out of Austin. “My friend agreed to be my partner in this initiative and we decided to develop a mobile application. When we studied about the ratings and review systems for different products and services, we realised the architecture for our product would have to be completely different than other applications. People should not only be able to search and see options of clean and good washrooms, but they should get real-time feedback on the status of the facility. In case of other services, ratings and reviews of past can be considered valid but in case of washrooms, these feedbacks need to be latest and verified. Since we both were doing our job, the platform development, ideation, iterations were being done in the night or weekends. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic hit us all and we thought we can utilise this time for introducing an application with better features,” Amol said.

“Blaming governments or individuals is the easiest thing to do. However, we need to think about what we can do to alleviate the situation even by the smallest percentage. ‘ToiletSeva’ was born from this concept and hence the name includes ‘Seva’ (service) word in it. We want to serve millions of people and our aim is to develop a platform which will benefit them. We will consider ourselves successful even if a few brands, employers are encouraged to provide clean washrooms to their employees and customers,” he said.

Launch

ToiletSeva app was launched in July 2022. Although it is in early stage, Amol said he wants to scale it up. “People expect God, Government and Google to solve all their problems. Government of India and local bodies are doing their bit by constructing public toilets but there is no mechanism to convey the availability, condition status and other information related to these facilities to potential users. We cannot wait for the government to do this, and hence we should develop a solution, which the government may also embrace if beneficial to the public. We have customised challenges in India and hence we need customised solutions but applicable for the entire country,” said Amol.

Reviews and ratings

Initially Amol also thought that Google may be capable of providing a solution involving combined search of shops or commercial establishments and washrooms. “To some extent, public toilets are marked and visible on Google Maps or search, but their approach is not unique for washroom problems. They use a common engineering infrastructure for all review and ratings system. Electronic appliances ratings may remain same and applicable or useful over years, but this is not the case with toilets. Toilet cleanliness is a time-based phenomenon and hence the review ratings system should be ideally real-time or based on recency. Hence, we decided to incorporate this feature in our app. Users can see review and ratings of last two week, or three months, six months, last year and overall too,” Amol said.

Pillars

Clean and good washroom is a very subjective term, as users can be picky about them. Even the feedback and ratings can be subjective. To address the issue, Amol decided to have some criteria or “pillars” which will define why the washroom is clean, safe, hygienic etc.

Amol said, “We have defined basic amenities required in any ‘out of home’ washroom. It includes, water, wash basin, liquid soap, paper towels or dryers, toilet papers, toilet seat covers (especially for women), diaper changing tables, sanitary napkins, trash can and electricity supply. One may feel liquid soap is necessary, while others may feel it is not essential. Users can see the list of these amenities on the app, check whether it is available and then decide to use the facility or not. We also show whether the type (Indian or western style) of toilet. ToiletSeva also displays facilities which are ‘paid’ or chargeable. People will benefit only if they get a choice. When businesses would compete for business with clean washrooms, we are confident that more people will opt for our system.”

“We have recently added the ‘religious places’ category to help people identify good washrooms in the vicinity of such crowded places. If not the religious place, then users can see nearby restaurants which have good washrooms,” adds Amol.

Uploading information

ToiletSeva initially had hired a data mining team whose task was to upload information about washrooms across the country, mostly at fuel stations, movie theatres and restaurants, cafes, etc, said Amol.

“To begin with, we included all these locations as probable washrooms and as we got more users, these inputs were verified and the status changed to reviewed washrooms. The owners also started claiming the facilities and hence for them the status was changed to ‘claimed’. Here, the owner claims the said facility and gives a commitment to their best of abilities. It is a social commitment and not a commercial one. Government officials too admitted to not having amenities at their facilities which was a welcome step. The officials are showing willingness to change the situation to a better one,” claims Amol.

Local collaborations

ToiletSeva is also working closely with local governing bodies like the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) and Pune Zilla Parishad (ZP) since last six months, claims Amol.

Amol said, “We have added data about 563 toilets from the ZP jurisdiction (Pune rural district) area on the platform. This was done keeping in mind the recent annual ‘Wari’ pilgrimage and procession passing through Pune region. Our experience with the government officials has been good. The toilets added on the platform have an identifier in their name itself. Also, we have generated QR codes which will be pasted inside the toilet where the users can scan the code and submit their reviews instantly. The QR codes will also act as identifiers.”

Actionable data

Amol said, “We have gathered accurately and responsibly shared data, but people have doubt whether it would be actionable. With initial data in place, users can now give their review and ratings and hence the searchability would improve. With the feedback loop in place, users can report issues and we can communicate with the respective owners, or local government bodies and get it addressed. We are providing the platform and we are willing to add more features beneficial for users. Also, we have provided a feature for PMC to enter data directly through an Excel Sheet containing latitude and longitude details of washroom locations and amenities availability details in simple yes and no answers. With such automation features in place, we believe we are ready to scale up and train teams.”

Network Level 1

ToiletSeva has introduced another feature ‘Network Level 1’ to weed out fake or manipulated reviews and ratings and provide trustworthy and genuine feedback to users.

Amol said, “We have developed our own mechanism to prevent fraudulent inputs. Beyond that, we have another feature called ‘Network Level 1’ where users can see filtered reviews and ratings which are submitted by someone in their phone contact lists. We can also pilot with organisations and their virtual network of employees and customers wherein their reviews and ratings can be filtered or selected to be shown to the users. The organisations can decide who can be included in their network level one and after that we will route users through the network to make reviews and ratings visible. We can create thousands of such networks.

“Some people may argue that World Toilet Organisation certifications for toilets are beneficial, however, we believe that it is a tedious process to get a facility certified and it will have a certain implementation cost involved. We are indirectly doing Cloud-based certification through the network level 1 initiative without any additional cost and efforts. Employees can also submit their anonymous feedback reviews through such network which will help improve the workplace conditions. In case of educational institutes and their issues reported, ex-student networks can help with funds and facilities,” Amol said.

Next step

Amol claims the ToiletSeva platform will always be free to use. Sharing his vision, Amol said, “Hygiene and sanitation is an important aspect of economy and hence we must improve the hygiene index of our country. We have adopted a constructive approach and consider this work as personal social responsibility instead of corporate social responsibility. We are building a loop of more users, increased commitment, and more actionable data. To make ToiletSeva platform sustainable and overall a zero-cost model, we are looking forward to business partnerships and collaboration with central and state governments. We have an ambition of partnering with the central government for including data related to 1 lakh+ fuel stations across the country. We have demonstrated the usefulness of our platform with the local bodies and look forward to implement it nationally.”

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