Quantified Toilets was a project developed by a group of us who attended the Critical Making Hackathon at CHI 2014. Our group included Matt Dalton (SFU), Angela Gabereau (Fabule Fabrications, Inc.), Lisa Koeman (UCL), David Nguyen (Nokia), Larissa Pschetz (University of Edinburgh) and me.
The aim of the workshop was to create devices that could monitor CHI 2014 conference attendees with the goal of creating discourse about the issues of privacy and surveillance technologies. After some initial brainstorming, our group centered on the theme of “inappropriate surveillance” with a common agreement that toilets are probably the most inappropriate place to monitor people at a conference. We then had lengthy discussions about the nature of the monitoring device. Should it be a wearable badge that we recruit people to use? Should it be a static monitoring device placed in the conference bathrooms which would be a more scalable option? At the center of these discussions lay the question of whether our technology should support opt-in or not. In the end we decided to take the stance of current surveillance where there is no opt-in option – we are regularly monitored by surveillance technologies such as CCTV regardless of whether we agree to it or not. Therefore, static technologies in the conference bathrooms was the agreed choice.
Next was the question of how to build the technology and what it should do. Should it just count people entering and leaving? Could we make it a bit more invasive? Our Eureka moment came when we realised that perhaps we didn’t need to create monitoring technology at all – we just had to create the illusion that it existed. From this moment our critical making turned from technology to critically making a startup company “Quantified Toilets” who had developed urine analysis technology and installed it in all the toilets at the conference venue.
To create this illusion we built a suitably corporate website complete with a “real-time” data feed of the urine analysis from the conference toilets:
We put a lot of effort into creating the company values which emphasized the health and financial benefits of our urine analysis product – not about gathering and analyzing your very private data in an invasive way!? The website was coupled with some promotional stickers that we placed in the conference bathrooms (see below) on the first morning of the conference.
Within 20 minutes of putting up the stickers the first tweet about Quantified Toilets was posted. After that things quickly snowballed and within an hour we had been contacted by Sky News to confirm if this was a real company or not. For the rest of the morning the tweets and media attention continued much to our surprise. The stickers were taken down by the conference organizers within 2 hours of being put up but discussions had very much moved onto social media by this time so the tweets and media interest continued for the rest of the conference week, by the end of which the website had received over 40,000 hits. We’re currently analyzing all the responses from Twitter, the media and our online questionnaire for a forthcoming paper.
I was both surprised and excited by the impact of Quantified Toilets. We had more than achieved our aim of opening up discussions on privacy and surveillance and have received a rich and varied range of responses from all across the globe. I’d like to thanks my Quantified Toilets team mates as this was a special group who came together so cohesively and did something amazing that played to the strengths of each team member. It will always be one of my favorite and most memorable CHI experiences!
For more information please visit the Quantified Toilets website:
To be confirmed