Tell Old Pharaoh: Let My Postcodes Go

The story of open data in the UK has been fairly uplifting in recent years, as more and more public datasets are released under liberal licences. Even the big holdouts - things like Ordnance Survey - have gradually loosened their grip. The...

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The story of open data in the UK has been fairly uplifting in recent years, as more and more public datasets are released under liberal licences. Even the big holdouts – things like Ordnance Survey – have gradually loosened their grip. The same is true for the Postcode Address File (PAF), which has a surprising long history:

In 2009, the first UK postcode celebrated its 50th anniversary. In a relatively short period of time the postcode has become an important part of our identity and our culture. It was only in 1959 when the Postmaster General, Ernest Maples, first trialled a 6 digit postcode in Norwich. The idea took a while to catch on as, by all accounts, less than half of the letters that were sent used the new postcodes. Other trials followed, notably in the mid 1960's in Croydon, and whilst a gradual roll-out of postcodes by Royal Mail continued in major conurbations, the roll out was not completed nationwide until 1974.

What's interesting about the Royal Mail is the following:

Historically, the General Post Office was a government department which included the Royal Mail delivery business, represented in Her Majesty's Government by the Postmaster General, a Cabinet-level post. It became a statutory corporation known as the Post Office in 1969. Most of the duties were passed to Consignia plc, a public limited company wholly owned by Her Majesty's Government, in November 2001 and the dormant Post Office Corporation was dissolved in 2007. Consignia changed to Consignia Holdings plc, then Royal Mail Holdings plc, the current name.

Royal Mail was not privatised in the 1980s or 1990s, and currently remains a state-owned company. However the Postal Services Act 2011 enables the government to privatise up to 90% of Royal Mail, with 10% being held by Royal Mail employees. The first sale of shares is expected in 2013.

As that shows, there is no doubt that the postcode data was generated by an entity owned by the British public. It follows, therefore, that all the postcode data should be freely available so that the maximum public benefit can be derived from it, rather than allowing it to become something "owned" by a company once privatisation is complete.

It's true that some steps have been made towards that goal:

on 1 April 2010 Ordnance Survey released co-ordinate data for all Great Britain postcodes (but not their address elements) for re-use free of charge under an attribution-only license, as part of OS OpenData.

But notice that this offers the data converting between postcodes and co-ordinates, and does not include the addresses. For this, it is still necessary to pay in most cases. But the amount of money generated is trifling. According to this 2010 Guardian article:

In 2005-06, the latest year for which figures have been made available, sales of PAF generated about £18m and a profit of less than £2m.

Even allowing for extreme growth since then, those are simply rounding errors for a business as big as Royal Mail:

For the financial year 2008-9 Royal Mail had an operating profit of £321m

It is incredibly short-sighted for the UK government to allow Royal Mail to hold on to this file: as has been seen time and again, liberating fundamental public data generates many orders of magnitude more in terms of economic benefit (and government taxes) than the paltry amounts raised by direct licensing:

In a seminal piece of research into the real cost of charging for access to public data, the late Peter Weiss, of the US National Weather Service, compared open and closed economic models for public sector data. His paper, Borders in Cyberspace: Conflicting Public Sector Information Policies and their Economic Impact, is online (http://tinyurl.com/cby55). He quoted a 2000 study for the European Commission carried out by Pira International, which noted that "the concept of commercial companies being able to acquire, at very low cost, quantities of public sector information and resell it for a variety of unregulated purposes to make a profit is one that policymakers in the EU find uncomfortable." But why?

Pira pointed out that the US's approach brings enormous economic benefits. The US and EU are comparable in size and population; but while the EU spent ‚¬9.5bn (£6.51bn) on gathering public sector data, and collected ‚¬68bn selling and licensing it, the US spent ‚¬19bn – twice as much – and realised ‚¬750bn – over 10 times more. Weiss pointed out: "Governments realise two kinds of financial gain when they drop charges: higher indirect tax revenue from higher sales of the products that incorporate the ... information; and higher income tax revenue and lower social welfare payments from net gains in employment."

There is a compelling case for freeing under a liberal database licence the remaining postcode data – see the great set of resources on this and related areas put together by UK Open Data User Group. And now is the moment to push for this:

Royal Mail has launched a consultation on a wide-ranging package of measures to simplify Postcode Address File (PAF) licensing

The proposals aim to incentivise take up, encourage greater use of PAF, and enable it to better meet the current and future needs of users and solutions developers in today's marketplace

The consultation follows new measures designed in collaboration with Government to improve access to the Postcode Address File (PAF) for micro businesses and small charities, encouraging innovation and growth

Royal Mail is probably not looking for bold suggestions like freeing up the PAF data completely, but it should be. Releasing the data would allow it to be used in all kinds of new and exciting ways that will have the knock-on effect of making it much more valuable, and allowing Royal Mail to make much more money from it indirectly, rather than plodding on with direct licensing.

If you'd like to help get the message across, here are the details of the consultation:

Any individual, organisation or association wishing to participate in the consultation is encouraged to do so. To take part, visit www.poweredbypaf.com/end-user/licensing/licence-consultations/. All responses to the consultation should be submitted by 20 September 2013.

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