[The views expressed in this blog are those of the Open Data User Group]
Addresses and postcodes are essential in our society. Yesterday I used or provided my address to at least five organisations or people – giving my property’s Land Registry details to a prospective tenant, informing a removals company where I will need to move from and to, enabling a bank to perform a credit check on me, arranging a grocery delivery and arranging a visit from a gas service engineer. Suppose none of these people could accurately identify where my address was located? Or if they had a vague idea what area I was located in but could not easily find my home? Amazingly this is all that open free-of-charge publicly available address data currently allows.
Imagine if in an emergency the emergency services did not know exactly where to go, or if the location of a potential natural disaster, like a river flooding, could only roughly be estimated. Does this sound implausible? Maybe it is less implausible than you would like to imagine.
The lack of an Open National Address Dataset has, over the last 20 years, undermined the Census, the effectiveness of emergency services, conveyancing and planning, reliable in-vehicle navigation and many other government and private sector applications.
I suspect that many of you reading this blog will be overly familiar with the colloquially named ‘address wars’ which have raged for years. However, most citizens would be surprised to hear that their address and postcode, once compiled by publicly owned bodies into a database, becomes a commercial asset which is exploited, through a restrictive and cumbersome licensing regime, to generate what are fairly small levels of profit for public sector organisations.
Since its formation in June this year the Open Data User Group (ODUG) has received strong representations from the Open Data Community that the UK Postcode Address File (PAF) should be made free to use and freely available under the Open Government License (OGL). So we have decided to pick up the baton on national address data. We are today publishing a paper calling for the publication and release of the Postcode Address File (PAF) from Royal Mail and of Ordnance Survey AddressBase Plus, the product that delivers the National Address Gazetteer (NAG), all as open data under the Open Government License.
Why is this so important? Because we know the benefits that releasing an Open National Address Dataset will bring to the UK will include improvements in innovation, growth, transparency and efficiency.
How can this be done? Well actually it’s very easy. We have been hampered in our research by a lack of transparency in the business models and operating costs of the various public organisations involved in national address data. But, undeterred, we are taking this debate to a different level.
We’ve analysed the top line figure in the published accounts of the Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey and GeoPlace and established that these publicly owned and funded organisations can well afford, within their current operating and funding models, to release this data for free. Ordnance Survey makes a tidy 30% return on the address products it supplies through GeoPlace, on revenues of £9.6m - well above the targets set for it by HM Treasury. It reported an overall operating surplus of £32m in 2011-12. Local Authorities and other public sector organisations already get Ordnance Survey address products free, funded through the £55m per anum Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA). Why shouldn’t the rest of the economy benefit from addresses as well?
Meanwhile Royal Mail has a licensing regime in place for the Postcode Address File (PAF) which is cumbersome for potential users of this data and also costly to run and administer. The organisation spends £24.5m in operating costs to maintain the PAF, making only £2.6m profit its licensing activities.
The revenue this activity delivers is only 0.3% of overall revenues. We think Royal Mail can well afford to release this data for free, considering that it is a £1.5bn organisation. In my personal view the Royal Mail should focus on its building its core business, recently returned to profitability, and give up its’ aspirations to further commercialise the monopoly position it has over a national asset which is based on crown copyright data.Also, if the Royal Mail is to be privatised we certainly would not want to see the Postcode Address File belonging to a non-publicly owned organisation. The Dutch made this mistake and then had to fight a lengthy EU court case and eventually buy back their ‘key-register’ of addresses and buildings, including postcodes, which they immediately made available for re-use without licensing conditions.
But it’s not all about the price tag. In our paper we have set out the various classes of benefit an Open National Address Dataset will deliver. Many of these benefits are difficult to quantify but we have some strong indicators of the real potential value of this data:In 2010 the Danish published a report indicating that the direct financial benefits of their free-of-charge address data will be around EUR 14 million, 70% of which will accrue to the private sector, with costs of distribution at only EUR 0.2 million.
Our own PAF Advisory Board’s 2011 study into the Economic Value of PAF estimated the value of PAF data to the UK economy at between £992m and £1.38bn per annum.Meanwhile compiling an adequate list of dwellings (National Address Register) for the 2011 Census cost £12m as a one-off activity.There would also be vast cost savings to be realised, not to mention service efficiencies, if all public sector bodies operated from a single National Address Register.
The Open Data User Group believes that it is only by releasing a definitive National Address Dataset as an open data product that inefficiencies and lost opportunities will be overcome. The use of correct addresses will be maximised in the national interest. It believes that releasing addresses as open data will help individuals grow their own businesses, and also benefit the wider economy.
The potential for £1.38bn of annual economic value balanced against the few £m of profit currently realised by the Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey would appear, to me, to be a no-brainer economic decision!
See the papers related to this blog:
Heather SavoryChair, ODUG