Open Addresses: Location, Location, Location

As I mentioned last summer, it's scandalous that the privatisation of the Royal Mail resulted not only in the public being short-changed by a billion quid or so, but also - arguably even worse - in the loss of one of the most precious UK datasets: postcodes. These are crucially important because geolocation data is central to providing services to mobile devices; giving a monopoly on this information to a company was irresponsible in the extreme.

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As I mentioned last summer, it's scandalous that the privatisation of the Royal Mail resulted not only in the public being short-changed by a billion quid or so, but also - arguably even worse - in the loss of one of the most precious UK datasets: postcodes. These are crucially important because geolocation data is central to providing services to mobile devices; giving a monopoly on this information to a company was irresponsible in the extreme.

Fortunately, open source teaches us that there are ways to get around this kind of problem - essentially by crowdsourcing a free and open alternative. That's exactly what Open Addresses hopes to do, drawing on input from the public:

We are building the Open Addresses list (our “dataset”) from address information that is already available openly on the web and from voluntary contributions by members of the public. All of these contributions go into the same platform that will validate and publish the addresses.

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Our aim is ultimately to publish a dataset that contains all UK addresses, with a unique code (called a “web identifier”) for each one. This will make it easy for people to find, link and combine address data with other data. They might use it for academic research or to provide new services such as making it easier to find a home to rent or buy.

Addresses are a vital part of the UK’s National Information Infrastructure (also known as the NII). We will always make the full dataset available for free as open data. Open data is information that is available for anyone to use, for any purpose, at no cost. We aim to ensure that there are no legal barriers to the republishing or reuse of either the address data or any linked dataset that is derived from it.

Here are some of the benefits of an open address database:

Enabling construction companies and owners of new properties to quickly register postal addresses so that they become immediately identifiable to essential (utilities, emergency services) and non-essential (retailers, fast-food) suppliers. Allowing start-up companies and developers access to data which, when combined with and linked to other open data sets will allow for the development of new goods and services. In Denmark, it’s been estimated that opening up address data created €14m of economic value in 2010.

The Open Addresses dataset is licensed as Open Data under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence, and - not surprisingly - the technology behind this project is open source. There are various ways of adding data, ranging from single entries by hand, to bulk entries. There is a FAQ and a blog, which give more details.

This is a really important and exciting project, and I hope it manages to come up with more funding and a business plan for making money in the future. If you're interested in this whole area, I can recommend a post by the Director of Open Addresses UK, Jeni Tennison, which presents a brief but fascinating history of addresses - both open and closed.  And don't forget to check whether your address is already there - and to add it if it's not.

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