A government proposal to create a national open address gazetteer has received overwhelming support from users of address data. However Royal Mail, owner of the widely used Postcode Address File (PAF) remains highly sceptical.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills this week quietly released responses to an independent report proposing the creation of a national open data address gazetteer. All but two of the 17 responses - several from public bodies - favour either a fully free or "freemium" resource. The exceptions are Royal Mail and a group representing users of its Postcode Address File.
Open data supporters have long called for a free address database to be created as part of the national information infrastructure. In its report published in February, consultancy Katalysis sets out seven options "to address the problem of wider access" and invited responses from interested parties.
Perhaps predictably, most interested parties are enthusiasts. The Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information says the proposal "gives us a chance to democratise access to addressing data" and meet the government's policy on open public data. "The addressing data situation has festered for far too long," notes its chairman, David Rhind, a former director general of Ordnance Survey.
A respondent for the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre observes that a licensing deal for public sector bodies to use the PAF have taken "far too long to sort out. I consider it to be a disgrace. Royal Mail have continually said in public that they are committed to this deal yet have done nothing about it."
The Office for National Statistics "strongly supports the principle of the national address gazetteer as open data... Furthermore we believe there is value in extending the scope of this work to consider how communal addresses are managed in the national list."
The Demographics User Group, which represents business users of census and other data, gently scorns the policy paper's warning that a totally open model would be accompanied by "complexities and risks". Chief executive Keith Dugmore says that all it needs is "a simple political decision to fund open usage".
Accusing the government of allowing data owners' interests "to trump those of the very many potential users", Dugmore "reluctantly" backs the freemium payment model as a step towards an open gazetteer.
For the wider open data community, the Open Data User Group says developments have vindicated its opposition to Royal Mail being allowed to keep the PAF on privatisation. It says that despite "significant limitations" the PAF has come to dominate the address gazetteer market through a combination of first-mover advantage, robust assertion of intellectual property rights and the development of a network of value added resellers.
The group says that if unless sufficiently strong regulatory steps are taken to minimise the impact of the "mistake of selling the PAF" the government's aspiration for a single, widely used definitive address gazetteer could be undermined. It "urges the government to consider creating a definitive gazetteer based on a third-party postcode file, rather than assuming that PAF is the only option.
In contrast, Royal Mail claims that the report "does not adequately assess the feasibility of an open national address gazetteer" and warns that without "positive and progressive management of the PAF" the Royal Mail's ability to carry out its universal service obligation would be severely undermined. It also criticises the report for failing to recognise measures put in place to increase the use of PAF within the economy.
Meanwhile the PAF Advisory Board admits that a tension exists between current solutions but it is "unclear why one perspective on how to resolve this tension should be subsidised by the tax payer over another." It continues: "In our view the continued separate existence of such a file is vital and PAF is best maintained close to an operational mail organisation". As all mail operators are private firms "that would not be covered by any presumption that public sector data should be open data."
A decision about whether to press ahead with a national open address gazetteer now rests with ministers. While some parts of Whitehall, notably the Cabinet Office, are sympathetic, Vince Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) seems likely to resist the idea. One complication is an impending decision on the future of a related key component of the national information infrastructure, Land Registry of England and Wales.
The temptation to punt a decision beyond the general election must be strong.