Toilets, Phones or Volts: Access Geo-Compared


Is it easier for you to use a toilet, make a call on a mobile phone or turn on a light? Each is incredibly important in its own right. Access to a toilet is one of the most important indicators of development. It prevents you and your family from getting sick. Access to electricity?Think cooking, heating, lighting, communications and mechanical power. The mobile phone has revolutionized communications and democratized access to information.

So what does each country have most access to? We used World Bank data to find out! Looking at the below map, it is immediately evident that cellular phones (114 green countries) are most accessible. Access to sanitation is greatest in 43 countries (displayed in red) while access to electricity is greatest only in 11.

It seems Canadians like their toilets (or hate phones). There is a pocket of high access to sanitation access in central and southern Africa. As there is in the middle east. Countries displayed in grey have either no data to display or have equal access to each indicator.


This map is somewhat deceptive though. It doesn't show the level of access. For example, by viewing this map one could interpret that 100% Russia's population may have access to cell phones and 99.9% have access to sanitation and electricity. Or it could suggest that 10% has access to cell phones and 9% have access to electricity and sanitation. Let's drill down to assess the level of access.

If you read the legend in the below map (i hope you always do), you will notice that some countries (143 to be exact!) have more cell phone subscriptions than people. This is most evident in Scandinavia and Russia. The most evident lack of phones is in central and the horn of Africa. But it is in some of these countries that innovation is amazingly exciting.

It is somewhat difficult to discern at this scale but the lowest levels of phone access are Myanmar, North Korea, Eritrea and Cuba. No prizes for guessing why this is the case. Somalia is fourth from the bottom which is somewhat surprising, given the resiliency of the communications network. Perhaps this is just a gap in the world bank data? Somalia doesn't seem to be the easiest place to carry out a census. Another surprise is Gabon, the tiny country on the west coast of Africa. It is displayed in dark orange as there are 117 phones per 100 people. This is an interesting exception to the pattern. Suggestions as to why this is the case are appreciated (please comment).


A child dies of poor sanitation every 20 seconds. Can you calculate how many will have died by the time you finish this article? Sanitation is vital. Russia seems to be somewhat surprising, as the data claim only 70% of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2010. This is less than in 1990, when 74% had access. If you know why this figure has dropped, please mention it in the comments.

The pattern gets very light in sub Saharan Africa. The contrast between north and west Africa is extremely stark. Its somewhat surprising the rates of access are higher in the Central Africa republic (car) than the more coastal countries. The car, the poster boy for forgotten humanitarian crisis, has greater access (34%) than the long-time darling of development, Ethiopia (21%).


There are obviously massive gaps in data in the below map. I have not researched it but I think it is safe to assume that North America, Europe and Australia have access to electricity. The lightest colors again in central, southern and east Africa. It is somewhat surprising that Sudan (the map and the data are dated before the recognition of south Sudan) is higher than some of its neighbors. 35% of Sudan's population is recorded as having access to electricity, while 9% of the population of its southern neighbor, Uganda, have access. Another neighbor, the economically booking Ethiopia, provides access to 17% of its population (Ethiopia which recorded a 9.9% growth rate in the same year).


Obviously there are weaknesses to the data, for example, the big gaps. It is possible however to view some interesting trends. Some may be expected, central and east Africa struggle with development indicators. Others more surprising, in Russia 30% do not have access to decent sanitation. This is an increase 26% in 1990! Another interesting pattern is the availability of mobile phones.


  • Access to improved sanitation facilities refers to the percentage of the population with at least adequate access to excreta disposal facilities that can effectively prevent human, animal, and insect contact with excreta. Improved facilities range from simple but protected pit latrines to flush toilets with a sewerage connection. To be effective, facilities must be correctly constructed and properly maintained.

  • Mobile cellular telephone subscriptions are subscriptions to a public mobile telephone service using cellular technology, which provide access to the public switched telephone network. Postpaid and prepaid subscriptions are included.

  • Access to electricity is the percentage of population with access to electricity. Electrification data are collected from industry, national surveys and international sources.