Where do you go when you have to go?
After hearing about his grandparents’ struggle to find public bathrooms, Amith realized how pervasive and problematic this issue really is.
“What about UPS drivers? What about Uber, Lyft drivers? Post Office workers? They're always on the go—where do they go?” asks the Commonwealth School sophomore.
Bathrooms, by their nature, are fairly taboo. But relieving oneself is an essential biological function, and public bathrooms are a critical municipal service. After all, we acknowledge the importance of access to fresh drinking water by sharing the location of water bottle–filling stations. And if the city will tell you where to fill your bladder, Amith says, why don’t they tell you where you can relieve it?
Like many homebound people during the pandemic, Amith’s grandparents turned to neighborhood walks for fresh air, exercise, relaxation, and simply a change of scenery. But they found they couldn’t walk far from their home, because they knew they wouldn’t have access to a bathroom. The reality for many people, particularly older individuals, is that they simply need to use the bathroom more frequently, Amith says. This was challenging enough before COVID-19, but private businesses have become all the more reluctant—or unable—to allow non-customers into their facilities.
So Amith created bathroomaccess.com to map out and list public bathrooms—a multifaceted project/crash course in computer programming, data collection, and coordinating with local officials. His website, like its subject matter, is purely practical: overlaid on a Google Map or in list view, you can see the bathroom’s address; hours, which can also serve as a filter; and general notes.
There are other apps and maps that plot bathrooms; Boston has one, in fact. But Amith says the existing apps are hard to find, and they can have incomplete data. They often include private restrooms as well, “which would be just as good as walking around and finding a McDonald's,” he says. “You don't really need an app for that.” And many cities, including Somerville, had nothing at all. Amith set out to change that, one line of code at a time.
“In addition to people being able to find public restrooms, my main aim was that our local city governments need to project inclusivity,” Amith says. “If there are no mentions of public restrooms on any of the city websites, how inclusive are they being? Over time, my goal became equally balanced between helping people find restrooms and in advocating for our local communities to acknowledge all biological needs and be welcoming to all who use their public spaces.”
The Programming Part
Amith started working on bathroomaccess.com in May of 2021, in and around his final exams at Commonwealth; progress was slow then, he says, but he worked in earnest over the summer. Even now, Amith spends most of his free time on the site, and he estimates having devoted about 100 hours to bathroomaccess.com thus far.
Starting with just a basic familiarity with HTML, Amith ultimately taught himself the programming language Django to bring his idea to life, deepening his existing knowledge along the way. “I had to figure out how their systems worked, and then I also needed to relearn all this stuff,” Amith says, since programming languages can evolve significantly over time. He’s just dipping his toes into mobile development as well, making sure his website is responsive on smartphones.
The database is powered by a library Amith installed that takes an address and uses its latitude and longitude to plot it on a map. Of course, Amith had to squash some technical bugs along the way, like when he tried to populate his own address and his program spit out a location in the wrong state.
Amith’s app dovetails nicely with his Commonwealth course work. He’s taking CS2: Designing with Classes, a college-level course focused on the mathematical underpinnings of computation. “I really like CS [computer science],” he says. “I already know a little bit of Java, so right now, it's a little bit easier for me, but I know, it'll just pick up a lot more. I'll be learning a lot more of Java, and I'm really excited.” He chose Commonwealth, in part, because of its strong STEM offerings. (“I just felt like what Commonwealth had to offer was really great…. It's been a great decision.”) The algorithmic nature of his computer science classes—that it’s more than web development—appeals to Amith as well. “Web development is like when you already have something, and you just need to figure out how to put it on a website, whereas algorithms and stuff like that are about ‘how do I make this idea.’ It’s more logical.”
The People Part
Programming the app is the easy part. Working with people is harder—particularly when you’re a young person trying to catch the government’s attention in the middle of a pandemic. “I'm not really on the list of priorities,” Amith says, though he recognizes that attending to the COVID-19 pandemic has been and must be the government’s priority. He also appreciates that it would unexpected even under non-pandemic circumstances to have “a 15 year old who doesn't go to school in their district, who doesn't live in their cities, asking them some random question.”
Luckily, Amith had a Commonwealth connection to contacts in local governments: history and City of Boston teacher Melissa Glenn Haber ’87, who has served as a sounding board throughout the app’s development. “She was really helpful and helped me think through the project,” Amtih says. “She also set me up with the higher ups at the Somerville HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services], and, to their credit, they were really interested in my project.”
With contacts in hand, Amith called the city government about all of their public buildings, like the libraries, the police stations, and city hall. These buildings only reopened their public bathrooms in July of 2021, and information was often out of date, stymying Amith’s research for some time. An overburdened government didn’t help. “I was spending hours and hours refreshing my inbox [waiting for a response], like three or four times a day,” he says. “My mom was like, ‘They have a lot of things to deal with!” But already a seasoned government interloper, Amith now knows the key is to “give them time and make them interested in what you're doing. You need to pitch to them in a way that they will understand.” His persistence paid off, with individual contacts ultimately providing invaluable intel. Somerville Parks and Recreation Director Jill Lathan was particularly helpful in supplying locations of porta potties, for example. From there, it was a matter of using the government data—and filling in the gaps by visiting neighborhoods on foot. “Finding the restrooms wasn't too big of a deal,” Amith says blithely.
In cities like Somerville, “public bathrooms” sometimes mean permanent plumbed buildings, sometimes just portapotties in a semi-permanent location. But Amith notes that they vary widely by community, and residents have wildly varying levels of access. While he could’ve done his bathroom research independently, getting government buy in was important to him. “If you're not showing where people can go to the bathroom and how inclusive your community is, you're sort of shunning Uber and Lyft drivers. You're shunning your Post Office workers,” he says. “The apps are just trying to fill the void.”
What Happens Next?
Amith worked with Dan Moore, the Web Developer and Multimedia Designer for the City of Somerville, on finding the best placement for bathroomaccess.com. Just today, he recived word that Dan will be featuring his work on the Shape-Up Somerville site, the “New Residents” guide, as well as their “Be Somerville” and SomerServe pages (as a perfect example of a creative and civic-minded volunteer project).
In addition to adding more cities and towns to his database, Amith hopes to expand the breadth of his research, too, perhaps adding a facility “cleanliness” field or noting if a portapotty is seasonal. He’s intrigued by the idea of crowdsourcing the information but wary of what that might do to the accuracy of the site. He also plans to tackle the project over Project Week, an annual happening at Commonwealth, where students engage in deep work on a subject of their choosing.
Ultimately, Amith hopes to make our local communities more openly inclusive of the needs of all their citizens, and to make it less taboo to acknowledge that all humans have basic biological needs. “I thought, why don't I just do it for all the city governments that are near so that people like my grandparents, or people like our taxi drivers, don't have to worry about where they're gonna go?”