The government is keeping the post code database in the hands of the Royal Mail and the Open Data Institute is left baffled
The government is facing criticism over plans to privatise the UK’s postcode database, with the Open Data Institute and others calling for the information to be opened up to the public.
At the centre of the row lies the Postcode Address File (PAF), which the government plans to keep in the hands of the Royal Mail, even though the ODI argues it would be better for the UK economy if others could access it for free.
The ODI, the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and professor Nigel Shadbolt, was formally established at the end of last year, backed up by government money, as the Coalition sought to push ahead with an open data strategy.
Open data criticism
“Companies need this data to drive business and domestic services, logistics, customer relationships and advertising. In an age of emerging mobile computing and location-based services it is key data for further innovation,” read a blog post from the ODI’s co-founder and chairman Nigel Shadbolt, who described the PAF as a “critical missing dataset”.
“This data is essential to government to carry out almost all its functions from the census to tax collecting, welfare, health and blue light services. Addressing is no longer about delivering letters: it is now a cornerstone of the new, much larger, digital economy.
“It is therefore essential that Ofcom, who have the statutory right to determine price and licensing policy of the PAF, find the means to ensure that this data is made available under an Open Licence and at marginal cost.
“Unless it is regulated appropriately, the Royal Mail will continue to extract a monopoly rent from other businesses. Unless it is regulated appropriately, the Royal Mail will continue to use inefficient and costly methods to maintain the PAF. Unless it is regulated appropriately it will inhibit competition and innovation to the detriment of the wider UK economy.”
The UK government has been a leader in open data, publishing plenty of easily accessible public information, which has led to innovative new services. But the move to keep the PAF locked up appears to be going against that strategy, critics have argued.
A Department for Business spokesperson said in a statement sent to TechWeekEurope: “The government’s primary objective in relation to Royal Mail is to secure a sustainable universal postal service. The PAF was developed by Royal Mail in order to aid delivery of the post and is integral to Royal Mail’s nationwide operations.
“In 2011 Parliament decided that the PAF should be available to all on reasonable terms. Ofcom, the independent regulator, can rule on what is reasonable, including what businesses pay, both large and small. BIS and Cabinet Office in discussion with Royal Mail and Ofcom will now see what more should be done to make licences better suit the needs of small companies.”
There are 24 million separate address details sitting on the PAF, which itself has been valued at as much as £900 million.
“We are on the side of the ODI. Taxpayer funded data that’s being held in an untranslatable governmental scheme is not doing anyone any good,” Dominique Lazanski, head of digital policy at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, told TechWeekEurope.
Privacy advocate Phil Booth added: “The problem I see in this context is part of the general dynamic of privatising ‘public’ data. We pay for this stuff. It’s ‘ours’ so why the hell does the government get to monopolistically exploit it?”
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