Ammonia gas detectors could be used to detect sites of open defecation

The UN marks World Toilet Day with a giant inflatable toilet. Image: Getty.

Approximately 1bn people around the world practice open defecation. Last month, on World Toilet Day, the UN announced that 1 in 6 people in developing countries are not using toilets.

The problem is often overlooked; yet it’s known to result in cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, polio, reduced physical growth, hepatitis, worm infestation and impaired cognitive function. It has other implications, too: women faced increased risk of sexual harassment for women; children are forced to drop out of schools at an early age due to lack of toilet access.

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that open defecation rates in developing countries have actually almost halved in just over 20 years: from 31 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2012. Of the 1bn that do practice open defecation, 82 per cent are present in just 10 countries. Nonetheless, in Sub Saharan Africa, diarrhoea remains the third biggest killer of children under five.

It’s clear is that peoples’ attitudes needs to be changed – but how can governments go about monitoring peoples’ toilet habits? Brurce Muhammad Mecca, an engineer from the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, thinks he may have the answer.

There are more people in Indonesia who practice open defecation than in any other Asian country except India: approximately 21 per cent of the Indonesian population, a whopping 54m people. So Mecca and his colleagues have designed Open Defecation Eyes, or ODEYES. These will capture information about the open defecation activities taking place by using gas detectors to measure how much ammonia, a gas found in human faeces, is present in different villages.

Mecca and colleagues aim to place the detectors in different locations within Indonesian villages, so the amount of open defecation taking place in different areas can be mapped out accordingly. But because open defection doesn’t only take place in villages, the project is also looking into placing the gas detectors in strategic areas such as the riverside or corn and paddy fields. This mapping activity should make it possible to compare the attitudes of people within cities to those in rural areas, too.

The ODEYES project also aims to develop electronic maps that would ultimately be present inside governmental offices: whenever there are significant levels of ammonia present, an indicator would light up, informing officials that high levels of open defecation are taking place in that particular area, so that they can take action.

Mecca and colleagues have recently submitted the ODEYES project to the UNICEF Global Design Challenge to get advice on how to refine the project further. Mecca says the project should begin developing its first prototypes after approximately six months, when enough funding has been obtained, further changes have been implemented and designs have been finalised.

Although ODEYES is currently in its initial stages, the problem it targets is essential and the solution it proposes has potential; one can also imagine similar initiatives being executed in other developing countries in the near future. 

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.