Michael CrossEditorThursday 15 November 2012

Open data group puts its stamp on addressing issue

Postal addresses - created and owned by the public sector but not available for free reuse - are emerging as the test case of the government's commitment to open data. In its first significant action, the Open Data User Group (ODUG), set up by the Cabinet Office earlier this year to represent users of public sector data, is urging the government to strip Royal Mail of rights to the Postcode Address File (PAF).

With Royal Mail being groomed for privatisation next year, the call will attract high level political controversy.

ODUG says that addresses are so central to our lives that the generation and maintenance of a collection of individually addressed locations is essential to the efficient operation of modern society.

However it says that current arrangements for the National Address Gazetteer do not meet the criteria. Licensing is "complex and overpriced". It is particularly critical of the Royal Mail's custodianship of PAF. "The only reason ODUG can surmise that Royal Mail might wish to keep hold of the PAF would be a future intention to charge more for PAF licences. This option is not in the interests of our society."

In future, it says, sources of publicly-owned spatial address and street data should be "solidly held in public ownership". At present, it says the gazetteer and its derivative products "are severely under-used (both publicly and commercially) as they are hampered with costly and complex licensing arrangements". The result is "a huge public inefficiency".

Under the present system, Royal Mail licenses the PAF to the GeoPlace company, which combines it with local authority addresses and the geographic co-ordinates for each address provided by Ordnance Survey to create the National Address Gazetteer, which is then updated by the Valuation Office Agency and others. PAF is separately licensed to local authorities under the public sector mapping agreement, while NAG is marketed and licenced by Ordnance Survey as AddressBase. In 2011-12 GeoPlace returned £3.1m profit on revenue of £9.4m; £2.4m of which was returned to Ordnance Survey. "These profits effectively constitute a tax levied on the use of essential address information and, we presume, are then used to support other activities within OS," the paper says.

ODUG also observes that Royal Mail has announced its intention to enhance the PAF with a pilot project to produce a geographic coordinate for every postal address in East Anglia and is expected to roll this out more widely. "We estimate that the cost of this activity, which replicates data already provided by Ordnance Survey, is at least £35m." It estimates indicate that an open national address dataset could be maintained for between £10m and £17m a year.

Benefits of open address data include cutting unnecessary costs and reducing duplication of effort and complexity within government. Possibilities include extending the "Tell us Once" system. Maintaining a single national address dataset "allows all officially used addresses to be maintained and corrected in a single place, from pre-build onward".

Tellingly, ODUG says its work was "hampered by a lack of transparency in the data available from various organisations who, although fully publicly owned or in receipt of public funds, fail to make the business models and operating costs for their publicly funded responsibilities available for open scrutiny. We find this lack of transparency unsatisfactory as a matter of public policy and business practice on a matter of such profound public interest as a national address dataset."

Addressing - long a cause celebre in the open data campaign - is likely to be among the topics investigated by Stephan Shakespeare's review of public data for the Cabinet Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is due to report to ministers next spring - exactly as the campaign to privatise Royal Mail is expected to get under way.