Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Do you know where your postboxes are?

As an example of how getting data out there can just be plain useful, let’s return to one of the winners of the Show Us A Better Way competition (remember that?).

Prizewinner: postbox locations.

Obstacle: Royal Mail wouldn’t release the data of the location of its 116,000 postboxes.

Solution: Freedom of Information request.

Obstacle: incomplete geographic information in the response (a postcode, not long/lat, plus a mystical Royal Mail reference per box); no collection times.

Solution: FOI request for the collection times and a bit of data marriage.

Obstacle: still don’t know where the postboxes actually are.

Solution: crowdsource it! Get people to pinpoint the locations of what they think are the postboxes onto an OpenStreetMap map. So far about 26,000 have been done – have you done the ones near you?

Obstacle: Royal Mail says it still holds all the rights to the locations of the postboxes.

Solution: actually, you don’t really need a solution. Toothpaste is notoriously hard to put back into the tube.

And as Matthew Somerville pointed out to us, knowing the locations of the postboxes means that one might be able to do “travelling salesman” analyses on the routes – which could have huge potential savings for the Royal Mail. How much does it spend on fuel and time doing collections every day? How much might it save with a proper analysis? Who knows? We won’t until we see all the postboxes put in their place.

And that’s why it’s better to rely on making government data available – free, in both senses of the word – than to try to create artificial “value” from it by charging.

Price does two things: it implies that what you are pricing has value; and it puts a barrier between the thing being “sold” and its potential users. If the users don’t want it enough, they won’t ever go across the barrier. If you take down the barrier, then you get every user you could ever get. And some of them will do really useful things with your product – that’s possible if it’s data.

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