The government has lost a valuable public dataset in the sale of the Royal Mail postcode database, according to MPs.
Government databases are potentially worth billions of pounds to consumers and businesses, a report released today by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) states, and should be made open and accessible as a “national asset”.
It branded the sale of the Royal Mail Postcode Address File (PAF) during the privatisation of the postal service in October as a “mistake”, and said that it should have been retained as a public database.
“The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake,” said committee chair Bernard Jenkin. “Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again. This type of information, like census information and many other data sets, is very expensive to collect and collate into useable form, but it also has huge potential value to the economy and society as a whole if it is kept as an open, public good.”
The use of government data has come under scrutiny recently, with controversy around the NHS care.data scheme, which opens up anonymised patient information for private sector use. However the Committee warned that "exaggerated" privacy concerns around the collection and sharing of data should not undermine the benefits of open data.
“The UK Government was an early mover on government open data, but other governments, watching the UK with interest, are catching up fast,” Jenkins said.
“If the government does not take the opportunities offered, there is a risk in the UK that businesses with growth potential will be deterred by fees for data, and by legal and administrative barriers, while other countries are developing their data industrial base and stealing a lead over the UK.”
Last month the government announced a £1.5 million project to unlock data from public bodies as part of its Release of Data fund, and has recently partnered with other countries such as Israel and Estonia on improving use of open data.