In Praise of Open Postcodes

As we now know, the privatisation of the Royal Mail was a financial fiasco that cost the UK public the better part of a billion pounds. But one other disastrous aspect of the sale that is usually overlooked is the fact that the main postcode...

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As we now know, the privatisation of the Royal Mail was a financial fiasco that cost the UK public the better part of a billion pounds. But one other disastrous aspect of the sale that is usually overlooked is the fact that the main postcode database is now privately owned, and thus unlikely ever to enter the public domain for all to use. That's a big loss for open geolocation data, since postcodes are a hugely important way of referring to places and people.

Incredibly, it seems that Ireland is not only failing to learn from the UK's mistakes, but making some new ones of it own as it brings its postcode system, Eircode:

Eircodes will help the public, businesses and public bodies to locate every individual address in the State. Eircodes will bring many benefits to the daily lives of people, householders and businesses. Currently, around 35% of addresses – mainly in rural areas – do not have a unique name or number in their address. With Eircodes, delivery of services and goods will be much easier and quicker to these addresses.

Here's a list of criticisms of the planned approach:

It is an unremarkable version of the 19th Century UK Postcode.

It is closed source and closed data which demands a license fee.

Application will require access and updates for a large database.

It is designed to code letterboxes only, not other points of interest, or infrastructure, or 999 locations.

It is designed to be a randomised code, useless for statistical data and describing local catchments.

It has no error-checking mechanism and codes can't even be check as looking like their neighbours.

There is no guarantee that the code has solved the problem of accidentally creating offensive words.

It entirely undermines data protection, personal privacy & safety. The postcode will always have pinpoint accuracy to your exact family household. No option.

A "routing-key" is a plain nonsense. No code can predetermine where you are based and what your natural business catchment is.

It is promised not to be repeated across the country, but D for Dublin continues the language bias against Irish. D for Dublin and random for everywhere else continues the place bias against everywhere else.

Quite a lot of problem stems from trying not to upset D4, hobbling a nation's postcode to D postcode property vanity.

This is another tax: a postcode tax which businesses will have to pay in order to stay competitive.

That comes from the Open Postcode Ireland site, which advocates using a completely open postcode design, for the following reasons:

An open postcode means it has a publicly available, free to use, calculation.

We will own and trust our own address data. One which is not open ties us to a for-profit contract, ties the hands of developers and enterprise in using the code creatively for the future, and introduces a waste in the code itself for obfuscation. Most importantly, proprietary codes cannot work as geolocation codes except for licensed users. To every other user, programmer, business, organisation, or government department they are just meaningless id codes.

You cannot measure the distance between two closed-source postcodes. You cannot get the coordinates of a closed-source postcode. You cannot make your own maps of closed-source postcodes. You cannot calculate the average distance of clients, customers, etc., from your location. You cannot track sales, plan marketing, organise service provisions, etc., by geolocation data on a closed-source postcode. You cannot sort address data by location on a closed-source postcode. You cannot use statistical analysis on location data from a closed-source postcode.

An open code is not centrally managed – no more than addresses are, no more than mapping is. It doesn't have to be central or official (land registry will use ITM, planning authorities will use OSI maps, insurance will continue to discriminate on area; a variety of different SatNav and location tools online and on phones continue; but the open postcode will seamlessly integrate into our current world without change).

Sounds great; maybe we should adopt it for the UK, too....

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