Free Our Data: the blog

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


What should be done with Royal Mail’s PAF? (From 1999)

This letter first appeared in the Financial Times on Friday July 30 1999. (You can see it at http://twitpic.com/z7y0m – which we can’t embed it for technical reasons.) We’re using it here because it’s rather interesting historically – especially for the signatories, and particularly one of them. You’ll notice, of course, that it didn’t work out like they asked….


Sir
The financial and commercial freedom that plc status will confer on the Post Office may be a welcome contribution to national competitiveness. However, one Post Office asset, namely the Postcode Address File (PAF), a computerised and maintained list of all postal delivery addresses and their postcodes, is too important a part of the national information infrastructure to be handed over without safeguards.

At present the Post Office receives new address information from local authorities, attaches additional information to optimise the address for postal delivery and allocates a postcode. This information is compiled into the PAF, which is copyrighted and published by the Post Office. IT is also made available through a number of Value Added Resellers (VAR). These data are used by thousands of commercial enterprises, large and small, for the maintenance of customer records and for a wide range of marketing and logistical purposes.

As a public corporation the Post Office has handled its monopoly position, as the national compiler of postal addresses, responsible. However, some have questioned the price of the information and the control the Post Office has exercised over its reuse and resale. Once the Post Office is a plc, directors tasked with maximising shareholder value could be tempted to extract further advantage from the PAF by restricting competitors’ access to the data, placing constraints on the operations of VARs, or charging royalty payments for the use of addresses in other contexts.

To ensure that the Post Office cannot succumb to such temptations as a plc, we would propose that the production, maintenance and placement of the PAF in the public domain should become a regulatory requirement for the Post Office in exchange for the privilege of retaining monopoly rights for the delivery of letters. This would ensure that the national address file becomes a public good to be used for the benefit of all, rather than an unregulated private asset.

Robert Barr, sr lecturer, school of geography, University of Manchester
Keith Dugmore, managing director, Demographic Decisions
Philip Good, managing director, Hopewiser
Robert James, independent consultant
Vanessa Lawrence, chair, Association for Geographic Information
Christopher Roper, director, Landmark Information Group
Richard Webber, director, Experian

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