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Lost in the post: open address saga continues



The team striving to open postal address data has revealed why the initiative is struggling

It’s now two years since the Government announced - and even provided funding for - a breakthrough in the decades-old struggle to set up a free source of accurate address data. In 2014, Cabinet Office’s Release of Data Fund granted £383,000 to the Open Data Institute’s Open Addresses UK project, set up with the slogan “making UK address data better for everyone”.

The announcement seemed to cut the Gordian knot of interlocking intellectual property which for decades has plagued attempts to create a shared national address database.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out like that. In a fascinating talk to the BCS - Chartered Institute for IT - last month, now posted on the web, Peter Wells of the Open Data Institute told the story.

Wells said the institute explored the benefits of better address data for the UK and found they were substantial.

“We found that we could help fix problems such as the months it can take before new addresses are added to computer systems across the country," he said. "Months during which someone might not be able to order a pizza, get home insurance or register to vote.

"We looked at the economic evidence from case studies of other countries, such as Denmark, that have released address data as open data. If the success of Denmark scaled in proportion to the population of the country then the UK could expect to see an extra £110 million a year of social and economic value. Value that we don’t get at the moment because paid data creates less economic value than open data.”

Digital cholera

Unfortunately, the programme hit a snag. It was the old problem of intellectual property.“We learned that one of the largest open data sets held by government was tainted by what we called ‘digital cholera’.” This was Land Registry price paid data, where the vast majority of addresses had been created or validated using OS AddressBase (which includes Royal Mail PAF data).”

Rather than spend the grant funding on legal advice, Wells said the project started developing a “collaborative maintenance model”; crowdsourcing data through APIs with users improving their own address data.

“The model allowed for different levels of trust based on how frequently we’d seen an address, who reported it, and how long ago they’d reported it,” Wells said.

Infringement claims

While these modern approaches could create a much better database, the intellectual property issues would hamstring the effort. 

Only one insurer would provide it with cover for defence against infringement claims. “The insurers were too concerned that the Royal Mail would take legal action to protect their revenues from address data.”

There was also the question of creating a sustainable business model. “Given that the provision of open address data was at the heart of its proposition, the core approach adopted by Open Addresses was ‘data for free, service for a fee’.”

Optimistic note

At this early stage in its evolution, Open Addresses cannot compete on quantity or quality with address data from Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey, built up through decades of investment from themselves, central government and local authorities.

The conclusion: “Someone else would have to take up the challenge of opening up address data and making things better for everyone.”

Wells ends on an upbeat note, however: that the 2016 Budget allocated £5 millon to explore options for opening up address data.

Will this ever become reality? “The honest answer is ‘I don’t know’ but I do trust the people working on it. They are good and there is clear political will to get this problem sorted. With good people and political support it’s possible to do hard things. I choose to be optimistic. I think they’ll succeed.”



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