Recent BBC news coverage stated that UK postcode data will be made freely available under an open licence from April 2010.
Colleagues at EDINA pointed out that some of the coverage assumes that the open data will be the same as that contained in the Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File – but this is uncertain.
Since 2000, UK postcode data has been managed by a consortium called “Gridlink” which comprises Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail, the Office of National Statistics and the General Register of Scotland.
Ordnance Survey collects the data from the other consortium members, and they all have the right to re-sell the collected data.
We can see the contractual setup of the Gridlink consortium in this response to an FOI request regarding the National Statistics Postcode Directory.
In short; it’s complicated. So it’s strange but not surprising to be sent a link to a confused opinion piece in the Financial Times discussing the role of “the Royal Mail, whose intellectual property the postcode datasets are”.
There are many different “postcode datasets” produced and licensed by different members of the GridLink consortium.
ONS and Royal Mail both sell “data products” which add lots of contextual data to the basic elements – which are the fact that a postcode exists, and the fact that it exists at a location. PAF records all the delivery addresses which share each postcode. The NSPD is meant for demographic statistics – it includes references to codes for census areas, health authorities, local government, etc covering the location of the postcode.
The simplest bit of raw data is the association of the postcode with the national grid reference at 1 meter resolution. The rest is added value, created by looking at the spatial relationships with other data sets. Imagine pushing a pin through a loose stack of paper shapes, giving them a shake, and seeing which ones stay on the pin. Then note which shapes stayed on the pin, and arrange the notes in a table form with an entry per postcode.
If the promise of data.gov.uk is realised, then anyone should be able to derive datasets that look a lot like the NSPD (but not the PAF). Raw postcode data provided under an open license does not stop Royal Mail from creating their own added-value products.
Open access just to the mapping between postcode and location would re-enable the “civic mashup” services that were dependent on ernestmarples.com. It’s enough to answer questions like “Who are my local councillors?”, “Are we in this school’s catchment area?” and “What new development work is being planned within a mile of me?”. Open postcodes will be fundamental to unlocking data.gov.uk and turning it into knowledge.
The data resulting from the activity of Gridlink is owned by the Crown, and is Crown Copyright. Postcodes are facts, they can be observed and independently recorded. NPEMaps and Free the Postcode are, or were, two efforts to reconstruct the facts from open sources – from old maps, or from GPS coordinates, and peoples’ knowledge about their own postcode.
I could go on in more obsessive detail, but you probably get the point. I’m unnerved by the idea that emotive media coverage of the Royal Mail’s future, as well as OS’s, will colour the consultation on opening state-collected geographic information in the UK. I would like to see more facts set out straight.
Thankfully, one worrying mis-statement in the FT article as already been corrected – the consultation on how to provide open access to the Ordnance Survey’s data was released today as expected. It runs til March 10th, and the likely last possible date that the current government can act on this is April 22nd. More on this later.