Open postcode? That’ll be a “no” then!

14 Mar

A month or so ago I got an email from the OpenRightsGroup, asking me to write to a minister supporting the idea of retaining the Postcode database as Royal Mail is privatised, and making it Open. The suggested text was as follows:

“Dear [Minister of State for Business and Enterprise]
“We live in an age where location services underpin a great chunk of the economy, public service delivery and reach intimate aspects of our lives through the rise of smartphones and in-car GPS. Every trip from A to B starts and ends in a postcode.
“In this context, a national database of addresses is both a critical national asset and a natural monopoly, which should not be commercially exploited by a single entity. Instead, the Postcode Address File should be made available for free reuse as part of our national public infrastructure.The postcode is now an essential part of daily life for many purposes. Open availbaility would create re-use and mashup opportunities with an economic value far in excess of what can be realised from a restrictive licence.
“I am writing to you as the minister responsible to ask for a public commitment to:
“1) Keep the Postcode Address File (PAF) under public ownership in the event of the Royal Mail being privatised.
“2) Release the PAF as part of a free and open National Address Dataset.”

A few days ago I got a response. I think it must be from a person, as the writer managed to mis-spell my name (not likely to endear him (or her) to me!)

“Dear Mr Rushbridge,

“Thank you for your email of 6 February to the Minister for Business and Enterprise, Michael Fallon MP, regarding the Postcode Address File (PAF).

“I trust you will understand that the Minister receives large amounts of correspondence every day and regretfully is unable to reply to each one personally.  I have been asked to reply.

“The Government’s primary objective in relation to Royal Mail is to secure a sustainable universal postal service.  The postcode was developed by Royal Mail in order to aid delivery of the post and is integral to Royal Mail’s nationwide operations.  However, we recognise that postcode data has now become an important component of many other applications, for example sat-navs.

“In light of PAF’s importance to other users, there is legislation in place to ensure that PAF must be made available to anyone who wishes to use it on terms that are reasonable.  This allows Royal Mail to charge an appropriate fee whilst also ensuring that other users have access to the data.  The requirement is set out in the Postal Services Act 2000 (as amended by the Postal Services Act 2011) and will apply regardless of who owns Royal Mail.  It is this regulatory regime, and not ownership of Royal Mail, that will ensure that PAF continues to be made available on reasonable terms.  Furthermore, Ofcom, the independent Regulator, has the power to direct Royal Mail as to what ‘reasonable’ terms are.  Ofcom are currently consulting on the issue of PAF regulation and more information can be found on their website at: http://www.ofcom.org.uk.

“On the question of a National Address Register, the UK already has one of the most comprehensive addressing data-sets in the world in the form of the National Address Gazetteer (NAG).  The NAG brings together addressing and location data from Ordnance Survey, Local Authorities and Royal Mail; the Government is committed to its continuation as the UK’s definitive addressing register.

“The Government is similarly committed to ensuring that the NAG is used to its full benefit by both public and private sector users, and keeps pricing and licensing arrangements under review with the data owners.  Alongside our commitment to the NAG, the Government is continuing to consider the feasibility of a national address register.

“I trust you will find this information helpful in explaining the position on this subject.

“Yours sincerely,

“BIS MINISTERIAL CORRESPONDENCE UNIT”

So, that’ll be a “No” then. But wait! Maybe there’s a free/open option? No such luck! From Royal Mail’s website, it looks like £4,000 for unlimited use of the entire PAF (for a year?), or £1 per 100 clicks. You can’t build an open mashup on that basis. Plus there’s a bunch of licences to work out and sign.

What about the wonderful National Address Gazeteer? It’s a bit hard to find out, as there seem to be mutiple suppliers, mainly private sector. Ordnance Survey offers AddressBase via their GeoPlace partnership, which appears [pdf] to cost £129,950 per year plus £0.008 per address for the first 5 million addresses! So that’s not exactly an Open alternative, either!

Now I’m all for Royal Mail being sustainable. But overall, I wonder how much better off the whole economy would be with a Open PAF than with a closed PAF?

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