Time to deliver open addresses?

The case for open addresses has been made at successive Open Data Camps. “What we are talking about is the UK national address dataset,” said session leader Owen Boswarva.

“Going back to the early days of open data, this is one of the data sets that people have argued for. It is available in other countries, like France, for example. But it has been a hard nut to crack in the UK, where we have not got over the hurdle of political will.”

What’s the issue?

So, what are open addresses? Owen started with a quick primer. “We are talking about non-personal data,” he said. “Addresses, and things like the post code, which are assigned by Royal Mail, and point co-ordinates. But not the name of the person who lives there, or anything like that.

“At the moment, addresses are created by local authorities, when a property is being planned, and this information is fed into a national database, run by GeoPlace, which is co-owned by Ordance Survey and an organisation that represents local authorities. It’s made available in various ways… such as Address Base, which is used by local authorities, and the Post Code Address file, which is used by the Royal Mail to deliver mail.

“These products are available to buy for some purposes. The open data community have argued they should be freely available. But as I said at the start, there has been a lack of political will to make it happen.”

One participant asked how much money the owners of the data make from it. Owen said the funding and revenue involved is opaque, but might be several million pounds a year. However, he argued, the data sets would not vanish if their owners could no longer generate this revenue.

Going around the houses to avoid the lack of data

There is some debate within the open source community over whether there are alternatives to solving the national problem.  One participant argued that it is possible to crowd source the information.

Arguably, Open Street Map does this. In fact, another participant said he had worked on a project to get people living on a new development that wasn’t being served by Royal Mail to register their data on Open Street Map – and get their parcels delivered.

It’s also possible to triangulate public data sets with location data sets. This is done by councils, when they want to check and use health and other data. However, there are some surprising restrictions on what can be done, to avoid undermining the proprietary data owned by councils and Royal Mail. Photos of things like parcels that reveal their location can be used by individuals and companies to prove delivery, but not to build a national resource.

An idea for a new government looking for new ideas

Also, Owen argued that crowd sourcing will not create an authoritative, national data file. Instead, he and other speakers felt the way forward will be to engage the new government in the idea that opening up address data will deliver benefits.

“I am in favour of this in principle,” Owen said. “But we know that organisations and businesses across the UK own their own data sets, that they have collected from people who have made enquiries or bought things from them, but to cleanse that, they [need to compare the data with the national file]. So, it would help to improve all these small data sets.

“There is another data quality piece, which is that people go onto websites and look for their address, and find it is not there, or not right, because it has been collected from different sources.” Other speakers argued open address data should generate growth benefits. As one example, a speaker argued that the UK wants to be a leader in drone technology, it will need a file of where drones might go.

There is also concern that if the Royal Mail is sold to a Czech billionaire, a valuable national resource will become owned by a foreign operator. Might this prompt action from the government? It might, Owen argued, if ministers are aware of it. Clearly, the open data community need to make sure they are. “The people who we need to influence are never in these discussions,” Owen acknowledged. “But I hope that we are all more aware, and can bring that awareness to bear.”

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