Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for the 'Post Office' Category

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

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

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

A new No.10 petition: free PostZon

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Mark Goodge added this as a comment to the data.gov.uk post, but it seems worth making more visible. So here it is:

“While the launch of data.gov.uk is a big step in the right direction, the government’s response to the petition inspired by the forced closure of ernestmarples.com has been pathetic. As a consequence, I’ve created a new petition which seeks to focus more tightly on the Postzon data (the data use by ernestmarples in their API). This can be found at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/geopostcode/.”

That’s one that’s definitely worth getting behind. Head over there and …do whatever the verb is for petitioning someone. Is it petition?

Data.gov.uk: now that’s what we call a result

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The official launch yesterday of data.gov.uk, with an index of 2,500 datasets provided by government departments, is fantastic news – and a significant milestone for the Free Our Data campaign.

It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come since 9 March 2006, when we kicked off the campaign in Guardian Technology with Give us back our crown jewels:

Imagine you had bought this newspaper for a friend. Imagine you asked them to tell you what’s in the TV listings – and they demanded cash before they would tell you. Outrageous? Certainly. Yet that is what a number of government agencies are doing with the data that we, as taxpayers, pay to have collected on our behalf. You have to pay to get a useful version of that data. Think of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) mapping data: useful to any business that wanted to provide a service in the UK, yet out of reach of startup companies without deep pockets.

This situation prevails across a number of government agencies. Its effects are all bad. It stifles innovation, enterprise and the creativity that should be the lifeblood of new business. And that is why Guardian Technology today launches a campaign – Free Our Data. The aim is simple: to persuade the government to abandon copyright on essential national data, making it freely available to anyone, while keeping the crucial task of collecting that data in the hands of taxpayer-funded agencies.

And further on:

[The consultancy] Pira [carrying out a study for the EU] pointed out that the US’s approach brings enormous economic benefits. The US and EU are comparable in size and population; but while the EU spent €9.5bn (£6.51bn) on gathering public sector data, and collected €68bn selling and licensing it, the US spent €19bn – twice as much – and realised €750bn – over 10 times more. [Peter] Weiss [who wrote a study comparing the US and UK] pointed out: “Governments realise two kinds of financial gain when they drop charges: higher indirect tax revenue from higher sales of the products that incorporate the … information; and higher income tax revenue and lower social welfare payments from net gains in employment.”

Happily, that argument has been driven through Whitehall by the efforts of Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. I interviewed Berners-Lee for the Guardian: see the video or read my account of how they did it.

So is that it? Is the campaign over? No, not at all. There are plenty of holdouts: UK Hydrographic Office is complicated (because it buys in third-party data which it then resells), yet even so one would think there should be information that it collects about British coastal waters which could be released as having public benefit.

Similarly postcodes, where there is some notable opposition to making any of the datasets free. The easiest one would be PostZon, which simply holds geolocations for each postcode plus data about which health and administrative boundary it lies inside; that’s nothing like as extensive (or valuable) as the full Postcode Address File (PAF).

But there’s really strong resistance against making anything from the Royal Mail available for free, and one detects Lord Mandelson’s hand in this.

If you haven’t yet had your say on the OS consultation, Harry Metcalfe has created a terrific tool for doing precisely that at osconsult.ernestmarples.com. Go along and make your views heard.

Postcodes to be free? But which ones?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

The BBC has a piece saying that “postcodes” will be free from 2010:

Currently organisations that want access to datasets that tie postcodes to physical locations cannot do so without incurring a charge.

Following a brief consultation, the postcode information is set to be freed in April 2010.

….

The dataset that is likely to be freed is that which ties postcodes to geographic locations. Many more commercial organisations use the Postcode Address File (PAF) that ties post codes to addresses. Currently access to either data set incurs a charge.

In October 2009 the Royal Mail took legal action that cut off the access many websites had to PAF data.

(You might remember that one.)(

Sites that used the postcode feed included Job Centre Pro Plus, HealthWare (locates nearby pharmacies and hospitals), Planning alerts.com (monitors planning applications), Straight Choice (finds out who sent political leaflets).

That’s quickly contradicted however by the email that came around from the Royal Mail, noted by Steve Feldman, coming from Giles Finnemore, Head of Marketing at the Address Management Unit of the Royal Mail:

You may be aware of a story on the BBC website today that Government is planning to give anyone free access to postcode data.

Access to postcodes is already, and will continue to be, free to every citizen via www.royalmail.com/postcodes4free.

(Which is a nonsense. It’s true, but it’s also nonsensical, because the postcodes4free page requires registration and will only give you a limited number of postcode lookups in a 24-hour period. Which, if you think about it, is absurd: why does the Royal Mail want to make it difficult to address letters? You need to have an address list if you want to generate postcodes; if you didn’t have the postcodes, where did you get the addresses?)

For the avoidance of doubt PAF(r), the Postcode Address File, remains the intellectual property of Royal Mail and is supplied and used under licence. The new and recently published licences come into effect from April 2010. There are no plans for that to change.

Maintaining a world class postal address file requires significant ongoing investment and it is right that organisations who obtain value from using the file pay to do so.

We are aware of no plans for Government to pay Royal Mail for businesses and organisations to use our address file.

And it’s also contradicted by the Royal Mail’s press release page, which at present (December 9) has nothing about postcodes.

However, it may well be that the PostZon file – or more precisely, the long/lat lookups for every postcode – will be available for free next April.

Digital engagement, widening and public data getting analysed… in private

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Stephen Timms reports that there’s been good progress in Making Public Data Public.

As the Digital Engagement blog notes:

So far our request for developers to “get excited and make things” has so far exceeded our initial expectations. Not only is the number of people signing up to the developer forum higher (currently more than 1,300), but also the discussion board is very active with a healthy list of ideas for the site and, perhaps most excitingly, a few applications are beginning to see the light of day.

And also:

Working in partnership with Guardian Professional, we held 3 developer days hosted at The Guardian‘s Kings Place offices in central London on the 14th-16th September. As an organisation they were best placed to help us undertake this task, having built a community of talented developers and opened up their API. You can have a look here at the excellent postcode paper concept and the rather wonderful traffic data visualisations here, which were just two of the many ideas for applications that emerged over the course of the camp. Ideas about their priorities for further data releases (to add to the 1,100 datasets currently on the site) were shared and important foundations for further iterations of the HMG Data site were laid.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the sessions at the Guardian were held under such secrecy that I didn’t find out about them until the week after. More posts on that later…

Tim Berners-Lee to help UK government build single data access point

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Computer Weekly reports that Tim Berners-Lee has been asked by the government to develop a single point of access for public data – as Stephen Timms, who has taken over where Tom Watson left off in the Cabinet Office, reports progress in “making public data public” (a concept that, when you think about it, seems a bit strange – as in “shouldn’t that have been done from the outset?”).

According to Computer Weekly, Timms told an RSA/Intellect event that

information is the “essential raw material” of a new digital society. “Government must play its part by setting a framework for new approaches to using data and ‘mashing’ data from different sources to provide new services which enhance our lives. In particular, we want government information to be accessible and useful for the widest possible spectrum of people.”

Well, minister, if that’s truly what you want, then you’ll make it free of charge, and free of copyright restrictions. It’s as simple as that. Could we suggest something like Creative Commons? The US government seems to find it amenable. .

Timms said, “We are supporting Sir Tim in a major new project, aiming for a single online point of contact for government data, and to extend access to data from the wider public sector. We want this project for ‘Making Public Data Public’ to put UK businesses and other organisations at the forefront of the new semantic web, and to be a platform for developing new technologies and new services.”

Fine words. We’d like some actions to go with them. We’re hearing plenty of sticks being wielded over how people use the net – Lord Mandelson’s threats to file-sharers, for example – but the carrots for companies to build on something that really would benefit Britain, by using British data, seems to be stuck on a really slow train.

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s almost impossible to put a figure on how opportunity cost is lost through the lack of access to this data – whereas the music industry can much more easily point to figures it’s produced (though you may argue about their provenance) to suggest precisely how much harm it’s suffering through untrammelled downloading.

Interesting to contrast, though, that when we asked the Royal Mail to specify precisely how much harm it was suffering through the use by ernestmarples.com of the postcode to lat/long conversion, it robustly declined to say.

Of course there is the Cambridge trading funds report, with its analysis of the opportunity cost of the trading funds regime. But this goes much wider – the Cambridge analysis didn’t look at the Royal Mail and postcodes, for example, which have become embedded into many systems’ location processing.

Computer Weekly again:

So far, 1,300 people have signed up to the developer forum and contributed to the discussion board on what the data could be used for. The Cabinet Office also held a developers’ camp where ideas were shared.

We’ll have more about the devcamp in a future post.

Costing ernestmarples (and free data) vs paid-for

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Somewhat late, but better than..

In the Guardian on Thursday, we have the cost-benefit analysis – if somewhat cursory – of having Royal Mail charge for its PostZon database (as used by ernestmarples, though indirectly) and having it available for free. So, for example, did RM lose out through ernestmarples? Or did we taxpayers benefit?

In Who would really benefit if postcode data were free, we add it up.

Royal Mail claimed that Richard Pope and Harry Metcalfe, the duo behind the site, had caused it “loss”. As the PostZon database being accessed via ernestmarples.com – named after the man who introduced postcodes to the UK – costs about £4,000 a year to license, could it be right?

Some simple calculations show that in fact everyone else, including the government that owns Royal Mail, and perhaps even Royal Mail itself, would benefit from the data being free.

Pope and Metcalfe point out that ernestmarples.com, which queried other websites that provide PostZon data for its postcode-location conversions, fed a number of their other websites – including Job Centre Pro Plus (which used a postcode lookup to find jobs near you), Planning Alerts (which alerts you to new planning applications in your area) and The Straight Choice (used to file election leaflets by area).

Job Centre Pro Plus had 437,354 searches for jobs since March this year, according to Metcalfe. If only 0.001% of those led to someone finding employment and saved £100 in benefit payments, then ernestmarples.com has, overall, saved the government money.

And Pope points out that professional property developers used PlanningAlerts “since it allows them to look for opportunities/competition”.

If that led them to work worth more than £20,000, the 25% corporate tax rate means the government has received more in tax revenue than it has lost from Pope and Metcalfe’s non-licensing of PostZon. Pope also notes that “few councils were using the PlanningAlerts API [programming interface] since it was easier and cheaper than paying external consultants to hack they achingly bad internal systems.” He points to Lincoln City Council, where PlanningAlerts was used to generate the RSS feed and map for planning. Would it cost more than £4,000 for Lincoln to build a system to do the job PlanningAlerts enabled?

Furthermore, “I was told by someone at the Electoral Commission that they used the Straight Choice during the Euro elections to monitor parties,” Pope said. “The alternative would be paying for hundreds of field agents (which they can’t afford).”

Rufus Pollock, a Cambridge economist who co-wrote a study for the government on the economic benefit of making trading funds’ data free, calculates that making PostZon free would bring an economic benefit 50% greater than Royal Mail’s present revenues.

Subequently it’s been suggested to me that the cost of licensing is more like £1,200 rather than £4,000 – which makes the case for benefit from free data even greater.

Royal Mail threat likely to close ernestmarples.org

Monday, October 5th, 2009

The Royal Mail has sent cease-and-desist orders (via its lawyers) to Richard Pope and Harry Metcalfe, the web developers behind ernestmarples.org (which we’ve referred to before).

Basically, they’re saying that ernestmarples is accessing the RM’s postcodes-to-coordinates database without permission, and that their clients are suffering loss as a result, and so they should stop.

Read it all (including the letter) at http://ernestmarples.com/blog/?p=3.

Two immediate questions:
1) how can it be unauthorised to access a database that is publicly accessible through others? Though of course there may be lots of fine print in white on a white background in which you “agree” not to reuse the information for anything actually useful anywhere.

2) precisely how much, and where, is the loss that Royal Mail has suffered? Ernestmarples would never have bought a licence. The services that they scraped for it (which RM’s lawyers have demanded a list of) are free to the public.

Tom Watson is ever so slightly incandescent about this; if he were a light bulb you probably wouldn’t be able to buy him in the shops.

This is stupid: as Tom Watson points out, closing this service will also affect other services that are being offered. Not clever.

Do you know where your postboxes are?

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

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.

Naughty, very naughty: Ernest Marples frees the postcodes

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

An interesting new site – ernestmarples.com/ – is trying to make postcodes free.

The people behind it (the whois details tell you that it’s registered to a location in SW1A 1AA, which happens to be Buckingham Palace) are Harry Metcalfe and Richard Pope.

They insist, when asked the question of “where does the data come from?” that

We’re not saying. But, just to be clear: we don’t hold a copy of the postcode database ourselves, neither in complete form nor as part of a cache.

But their aim is clear enough:

Post codes are really useful, but the powers that be keep them closed unless you have loads of money to pay for them. Which makes it hard to build useful websites (and that makes Ernest sad).

So we are setting them free and using them to run PlanningAlerts.com and Jobcentre Pro Plus. We’re doing the same as everyone’s being doing for years, but just being open about it.

Hopefully the Government and Royal Mail will realise the value of this service and license us to offer it officially and for free. If not, and this website gets shut down, we’ll close the websites we’ve made that make use of this site’s lookup service. Permanently.

There’s a long list of people who have supported it. We’ll add our voice. The Free Our Data campaign thinks it’s a good idea to make postcodes freely available.

In the Guardian: what happens to the Postcode Address File in a Royal Mail split ownership?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

With Lord Vold… Mandelson looking to persuade a private partner, likely TNT, to take a minority shareholding in the Royal Mail, the interesting question arises of what happens to the ownership of the intellectual property of the Postcode Address File (PAF).

After all, if you buy into a company, you’d probably want to see more efficient use of its assets. (That’s part of the plan in the shareholding selloff.) Would that mean that TNT or similar would start trying to “sweat the assets” of the PAF?

In What does the Royal Mail sell-off mean for postcodes data we investigate this briefly. The problem is that nobody – including the Turner Report into the future of the Royal Mail – seems to have considered this. Neither PAF nor intellectual property nor postcodes are mentioned at all in the Turner report.

PAF is profitable –

in August 2007 the postal regulator Postcomm revealed that PAF operations made a profit of £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m, all but £4m from resellers.

However marketing organisations, which use PAF, don’t like the idea of those assets being sweated.

“The reason for getting the private sector involved [in the Royal Mail] is to improve efficiency,” said Robert Keitch, director of media channel development at the Direct Marketing Association. Raising PAF prices would make it harder to check addresses and increase the need for manual checks by postal staff, he suggested.

Our opinion?

The Free Our Data campaign has consistently suggested that the PAF – linked to map data – should be made available for free, without copyright restrictions, due to its growing importance for location-based services. The comparatively small cost of running it, especially without the costs of administering its sales and checking for violations of licences, could perhaps be borne through a levy on address or name changes, or simply through the tax revenues that could be gained from new companies set up to take advantage of the datasets. However, it is unknown whether Mandelson will recommend that.

We await developments.

In the Guardian: the mystery of the vanishing addresses

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Thursday’s Guardian Technology looks at the mysterious ways in which addresses within some postcodes are simply vanishing from the Postcode Address File (PAF) – that enormously useful index of places in the UK which can receive mail. A new Highland clearance? Well, sort of.

In January 2008, the picturesque west Highland village of Applecross contained 32 buildings with postal addresses. A year on, it has only 24. This is not the result of some new Highland clearance, but an absurd consequence of UK government bodies treating data collected in the course of their work as a commercial asset rather than a national resource to be shared.

It’s not that the houses are going away; they’re very much still there. And they’re still owned by people. But Royal Mail, in attempting to maximise the value of the PAF, is removing them because that makes PAF more valuable to direct marketing companies – even while it reduces its utility to local authorities, which initially gave Royal Mail the details of the addresses, because they need to know about habitable locations in order to do things like emergency planning and other local services (dustbin/recycling runs, anyone?).

Royal Mail says it has a policy of removing addresses from the database when houses are unoccupied. “If the postie can no longer reach the delivery point, or if a house is obviously completely unoccupied, the postie informs us and the address is removed from the PAF. If it later becomes occupied, it would be put back on.”

And then…

Turf wars between Royal Mail, local authorities and Ordnance Survey over the ownership of postal addresses have a long history, imperilling everything from emergency services to the national census. Local authorities are particularly bitter about the current state of affairs because they have the statutory job of creating addresses in the first place. As one council specialist put it: “Local authorities create addresses, Royal Mail adds the postcode – then this data is sold back to us by Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey.”

Any other examples of this that anyone has come across?

A quick roundup to start the new year

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Hope you’ve all come through the new year without suffering too many leap-last-year problems. I thought it would be interesting to round up a few things that I’ve seen but not really had enough brainpower to turn into anything more than notes.

First, Public Data Sets stored on Amazon Web Services. (Via Richard Allan.) An interesting idea: got public datasets? Well, why not get them stored somewhere really cheap where people can access them but you only pay per download. It’s the ultimate outsourcing, and you also get to see how many people are downloading it without the capital costs of the servers.

Public Data Sets on AWS provides a centralized repository of public data sets that can be seamlessly integrated into AWS cloud-based applications. AWS is hosting the public data sets at no charge for the community, and like all AWS services, users pay only for the compute and storage they use for their own applications. An initial list of data sets is already available, and more will be added soon.

It’s already got the Human Genome and the US Census data. The idea of hosting UK public datasets on AWS was floated in the Cambridge Economics report released with the Budget back in March. Any takers?

Second, Municipalities open their GIS systems to citizens (thanks, Gerry Gavigan, who points out that “As well as innovation and the other usual unexpected benefits, it points to the existence, alas without quantification, of financial benefits.”) The article explains:

For instance, the online burning permit sales service of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allows citizens to declare precisely where they would like to burn woody debris. High precision is essential in deciding whether a permit is obtainable, as well as when and under what conditions: if there is a high fire risk in the area and day for which a user asks for a permit, the software must refuse it. The Web site, however, makes it easy to enter the location with the greatest possible resolution: users first type an address into a form to get an approximate location on the map, then zoom at will and finally click on the exact spot for which they are applying for a permit.

And, more pertinently:

The success of initiatives like OpenStreetMap or the availability of Yahoo! and Google Maps APIs may make you think that people may create services like these and many more all by themselves, without getting any bureaucrat involved. However, in order to benefit the most from digital maps and other spatial data, citizens need such data to be officially inserted in, and completely integrated with, the maps and databases public administrations use to plan roads, zoning, and everything else.

Citizens may use Web sites like those mentioned here to request services as different as bus stops, trekking permits, or new post offices. Other uses may include signalling construction abuses, damages to public property, or illegal dumpsters. We may draw our preferred public bus routes on a map in our City Council official Web site.

Of course, to make all this work in practice, public administrations should also clarify the data ownership situation. Who owns data directly and freely provided from citizens? What license should apply to those data or any derived ones? This, however, is a separate issue, not really related to open source software.

And finally, some interesting questions being asked in Parliament by John Howell (of the Tories) about Ordnance Survey income from local authorities, and on use of OS vector data for commercial use (and, previously, about discussions between OS and Google over mapping licences; Ed Parsons, formerly OS and now Google, says the minister’s answer is wrong); while Mike Gapes, a Labour MP, about London mapping payments to OS and payments to OS for use of its data by various government authorities.

We’d be interested in any comments on what Gapes and Howell are trying to unearth here… and of course your comments on anything else. And happy new year!

Want the Postcode Address File for free? Just ask (updated)

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Some more remarkable achievements by the Showusabetterway website – the competition set up by the UK government asking people to suggest ways to use its data to create mashups and new services, and offering a £20,000 prize for a winner. (Or possibly winners. But read on.)

The latest win: the Royal Mail is joining in, offering its Postcode Address File. Yes, you can argue that it ought to make that available for free anyway, but let’s change the world one piece at a time.

To get the full file, all you need to do – as the site explains – is to email the Royal Mail.

For full access you should email the Address Management Unit at address.management@royalmail.com Put ‘Show Us A Better Way’ in your subject heading so they know to prioritise your request.

Please also in the email say (a) the format you’d like it in (given on the details page) and your physical address, so they can send you the data on CD if you want it.

(The link above will fill in the email with the subject line pre-filled.)

This is a hell of an achievement. As I understand it, the licences will only be valid through to the end of July, so be quick. But if you’ve ever needed to see what the full PAF looks like, here’s your chance.

Obviously, we would not condone using it in ways that breach the Royal Mail licence. We’re aiming to do this legally. But it’s definitely another success for the Power of Information taskforce and Tom Watson in the Cabinet Office. He said he’d have a go on June 29th; now he’s achieved it. Three weeks? For government and licensing regimes, that’s fast.

The postcode debate, summed up beautifully on Tom Watson’s blog

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Tom Watson MP, the Cabinet Office minister who is also the political wing of the Power Of Information taskforce, started an interesting debate on his blog, when he noted a comment by Simon Dickson about the usefulness of the Postcode Address File.

He mused, “I’m going to spend some time trying to understand just why [PAF] can’t be available for free or at marginal cost. Feel free to air your views in the comment section.”

And boy, did people air their comments. It’s worth reading in full, but I think the prize – at least the Free Our Data prize for stating the value of the free data model – goes to Greg, who (in a long and well-argued comment) sums up by responding to “Mitch” (an earlier commenter who had worked in the Royal Mail on updating the PAF):

The points you make, Mitch, are unfortunately so reminisecent of the innovation-stifling opinions of inward-facing bureaucrats which have been such a major contributor to Britain’s loss of economic advantage over the years. Examples which are now so clear include the fact that we invented public-key encryption long before the US, but kept it a government secret rather than using it to gain an edge in commerce; or that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine only to find that closed-minded bureaucrats couldn’t see it working. Bureaucrats are rarely the best people to judge whether something has a place in propelling innovation and competitiveness. The fact that there’s so much energy on my side of the postcodes debate [arguing to make it available for free] says it all.

Mitch; you should be proud that you worked on a world-leading data source. It’s just such a shame its wings are crippled by its owners.

We love it when people state the benefits so clearly. The whole thread is worth reading, though, for the vigour of the arguments on both sides.