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

In the Guardian: how rows over intellectual property are causing problems for the 2011 census

Friday, June 6th, 2008

In this week’s Guardian Technology we look at the 2011 census – and beyond: the Commons Treasury Select Committee produced a report earlier this year pointing out that the £500m 2011 census is being hampered by rows between the Ordnance Survey, Post Office and local authorities about who owns the intellectual property in addresses, as the Office for National Statistics needs a comprehensive, accurate national address register to carry out its work.

The article, Traditional census is ‘obsolete’ also looks at what could follow: a rolling census carried out by noting peoples’ movements through address registers and so on.

An extract:

Angela Eagle, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, was pressed by Mark Todd, the Labour MP for South Derbyshire who sits on the committee, over the failure to create the register – particularly because, as he repeatedly pointed out, all the intellectual property lies within the public sector. Eagle responded that: “I would not underestimate the difficulty of the issues surrounding [a single national address register].” Todd suggested that a Gordian knot approach – cutting through the complexity at a stroke of legislation – might work. “We can all hope,” Eagle responded. But in the meantime, the government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) will prepare its own register – a needless duplication.

The Free Our Data campaign would certainly back a Gordian approach: slice through the 10 years of rows by making the data available for free, without copyright restrictions, where they are gathered by government-owned organisations.

While Todd is no fan of the free data model, we can all agree with his frustration at the way that rows about data owned by public-sector organisations are holding back the development of another public-sector resource, an accurate census. The report recommends that the government “remove any outstanding obstacles to the production of an address register”.

But what are those obstacles? Only they know. Todd said: “I don’t know whether it’s the trading fund status of Ordnance Survey, legalistic barriers or failure of the will by government.”

You can find the Treasury select committee report here.

Is there a Valuation Office portal? No. Can we have one? No. Why not?…

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

An interesting exchange in the Commons between MarK Todd, who has some interest in matters of data availability (though we must point out he disagrees with the free data theorem – though, then again, he hadn’t finished reading the Cambridge economics report when we spoke to him earlier this week).

So here’s his first question (a written answer – Alastair Darling didn’t answer in the chamber)

Mark Todd: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what arrangements exist for the Valuation Office Agency to make the council tax list for England and Wales available to third parties for value-added use; and if he will make a statement.

The written answer, from the Financial Secretary, HM Treasury:

Jane Kennedy: Council tax valuation lists for England and Wales are available to search on the Valuation Office Agency’s website at no cost. Full copies of lists are not otherwise available without a statutory gateway.

OK, then: on 16 May, another written PQ and answer:

Mark Todd: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer pursuant to the answer of 6 May 2008, Official Report, columns 817-8W, on council tax: valuation, whether a statutory gateway will be introduced.

Jane Kennedy: Statutory gateways exist in so far as they are provided by Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 and other legislative provisions. This Department has no current plans to introduce further gateways.

I asked Mark Todd what the thrust of these questions was. He explained that he has constituents who are interested in finding out the value of houses in areas. They can get that data from local councils, in the form of the council tax valuations (which date back years). Except you can’t get it in bulk – unless you go in person to the council.

So there’s no obstacle to getting the information. The obstacle is to getting it in bulk. And the government isn’t going to make it easier to get. This is puzzling to Mr Todd. And to us, to be honest. There’s value there, but it’s being kept under wraps.

Why? The Post Office is in dire straits because too few companies are using its services to send letters. Companies that want to sell you stuff like addresses of people who fit their demographics. Yes, you can call it junk mail – but it’s easy to ignore. (I got a ton because I had a planning application on my house: lots of companies picked that up and sent me letters advertising their wares.) Even so, it’s all money for the Post Office.

Mr Todd will, we suspect, pursue this strange reluctance on the part of the government to find ways to make a bit of money from its information. He may think it should sell it. We think it would make better sense to make it free and let companies benefit from using it. But even if the ends are different, we have a common cause. We’ll watch this with interest.

|In Thursday’s Guardian: want to know where post offices are? Sorry, we can’t (or won’t) tell yoyu

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

The latest edition of Guardian Technology looks at the peculiar question of the locations of post offices, in “Want to know where the UK’s post offices are? Sorry, you can’t“.

It’s the by-now familiar story: you can get a little data free (the ten nearest post offices to a particular postcode), but the whole lot – no.

Demographer Keith Dugmore has been trying for the past couple of years to get hold of such a list. He runs the Demographics User Group, made up of people who use information such as census returns to make business decisions. A list of post office locations would be of great interest to other retailers, he says. It might also be of use to people publishing online guides, or to campaigners against the current programme to cut the network by 2,500 branches.

As a state-owned company (a subsidiary of Royal Mail), Post Office Ltd is in theory subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “I made a freedom of information request to the Post Office asking if they would be able to supply a single file of all post office addresses in the UK,” Mr Dugmore said.

The answer was no: first because it might have value to competitors; secondly because such a file would have commercial value in itself. He is now considering his next move. He could either appeal to the information commissioner or create his own list by “scraping” data from the Post Office website.

But as the article points out, you could ask now for that dataset from OPSI through the Re-use request service forum – the web channel that has been set up precisely for requests like this. Use it early, use it often. We ought to know what datasets government departments have.

Postcodes: local authorities vs Royal Mail still arguing; want to sign a petition?

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

We’ve got intellectual property rows, petition and a question you might be able to answer this time.

This week’s Guardian returns, in Royal Mail fails to address database issue, to the vexed question of whether RM will let local authorities retain some intellectual property in the addresses they provide to it, as well as paying them for it – neither of which happens at present.

According to leaked letters we’ve seen, RM isn’t in favour. But the authorities are. Impasse. And as the article points out,

The saga provides a graphic example of an issue at the heart of Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign – the bureaucracy and waste that ensue when state bodies treat vital data as an asset that must be made directly profitable.

The addresses go into the Postcode Address File, which unlike thousands of post offices

is profitable, making £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m in 2005-06 (Royal Mail’s postcode database reveals its profitable side, April 26). Councils in England and Wales spend about £2.5m a year on postcodes (paid to Ordnance Survey and commercial businesses, as well as Royal Mail).

After protests last year over price rises, Royal Mail said that it would consider “reasonable remuneration” to local authorities supplying data on new addresses. But negotiations on the terms have foundered over intellectual property rights.

This one could run and run – and already has.

This ludicrous position is a result of conflicting responsibilities placed on state-owned bodies. As a commercial (albeit state-owned) enterprise, Royal Mail has to make its assets pay, and that includes a national resource such as postcodes. Local authorities are being squeezed by council-tax caps and efficiency targets; selling data is thus a rare new source of income. The agency, meanwhile, wants to ensure the future of the National Land and Property Gazetteer, which it sees as a vital tool for modernisation. Its commercial contractor, Intelligent Addressing, is embroiled in a separate dispute with Ordnance Survey over addressing data.

The Free Our Data campaign proposes that all public bodies to free up their address databases, funded from central taxation. We’re not alone. A petition at urging the prime minister “to end the address dispute between local government, Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey” has 370 signatures.

In case you haven’t been to see (or sign) it, here’s the address mess petition. (It was started by Robert Kimber of Luton council; he’s been quoted here earlier.) We found it via the NLPG’s April e-zine – which is itself an interesting byway. The NLPG, of course, is the one which handles all the addresses (except for Birmingham’s. Why doesn’t Birmingham belong to the NLPG? Answers in a comment, please.)

Revealed: how profitable Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File (PAF) really is

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

The Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File (PAF) is pretty much indispensable for anyone doing direct marketing work. Now the Postcomm report on PAF that we mentioned last week has come up with something not seen before, at least outside RM: the profit and loss accounts for PAF. (Postcomm is the postal regulator, independent of RM.)

Turns out that PAF makes a profit of £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m, an 8.6% return on revenue. Most of the revenues come from PAF resellers (£14.9m). You’ll have to read to Annex 5 of the Postcomm report.

But we’ve looked at what this means in The Guardian. PAF underpins billions of pounds of the Royal Mail’s business, the direct marketing business, and the burgeoning market for satellite navigation (from memory, worth about £400m last year – corrections welcomed).

The price however is without any payment to local authorities, who have been cutting up rough about having no intellectual property rights embedded as suppliers of new address data. (There’s no information from Postcomm about how much PAF revenue comes from the public sector, which would be a useful figure. Royal Mail was chary about providing any information on PAF, one discovers on reading the report.)

RM told us it is “confident” about reaching a settlement. But isn’t this just more of a money-go-round, if they’re paid for supplying data to a product they then buy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have PAF centrally funded, ringfenced by Postcomm’s recommendations and available for free to all? You might even encourage people to offer updates directly – which would cut the cost of maintenance, which at £9m or so comprises more than half the cost of running PAF for RM.

Postcomm makes recommendations on future of Postcode Address File: it should make a profit

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Postcomm, the postal regulator, has come up with its recommendations on what should happen with the Postcode Address File (PAF) – that valuable item owned by the Post Office/Royal Mail.

Postcomm calls them “new safeguards for the future management of the postcode and address data contained in Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File”, which you can see at the Postcomm announcement on PAF:

The four key issues covered in today’s document – “Royal Mail’s future management of PAF” (pdf, 604KB)– are:

  • The definition of PAF – what information should Royal Mail be obliged to supply? Postcomm considers that ‘PAF data’ is not only made up of postcode details, but also includes other information needed to allow users to identify specific addresses.
  • The creation of an advisory board. Royal Mail has agreed to set up an advisory board to represent the views of PAF users, and has already started the recruitment process for the board’s independent chairman.
  • Ringfencing of PAF. As competition develops in the mail market – and also with other suppliers of similar address data – it is crucial that Royal Mail ringfences PAF from its other activities, in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
  • Profits. There is increasing demand for PAF data from a wide range of organisations, which rely very heavily on the information it provides. This puts Royal Mail in a very powerful position where setting prices is concerned. Although PAF does not fall within the ‘price control’ that Postcomm uses to set a pricing and service quality framework for Royal Mail, the company has agreed to aim for an operating profit margin in the range of 8-10%. If profits exceed this range, the excess would be either returned to customers or reinvested in PAF.
  • The linked PDF is a sprightly 92 pages, and I’m working my way through it. The questions that spring to mind for me are: why 8-10%? I suppose that’s a typical operating profit in the private sector – but it’s interesting that there’s not been the application of, say, “return on capital employed” (used in trading funds) which would give a much lower price for PAF.

    Secondly, how can PAF truly be ringfenced?

    We’re interested to hear your views – particularly if you’ve managed to reach page 92 first.

    Free our address data – or at least get them to stop charging each other: the petition

    Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

    As noted in this comment elsewhere on the blog, there’s now a No.10 petition to stop the address madness:

    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to stop the expensive and damaging address ownership conflict currently existing between Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey and Local Government by definitively establishing that the intellectual property input of all three parties into derived address products such as PAF, AddressPoint, NLPG and NSG is equal in scope and value. Consequently, in the public interest, none of the three parties should charge either of the other parties for use of these products.

    While we’re sceptical of the power of these petitions to change anything, they’re a good meeting point to indicate strengths of feeling.

    So – sign it and then meet back here to work out what financial impact this would actually have – especially since local authorities are meant to be planning how much to charge for searches relating to homes (link to Yvette Cooper MP dithering on the matter earlier this month).

    If they didn’t have to pay for that part, would searches be cheaper?

    Postcode charges threatens split between councils and Post Office

    Thursday, November 16th, 2006

    Worryingly, the government’s insistence that every chunk of data somehow be turned into an asset in itself – rather than an asset to whoever uses it – is creating fissures between councils, which generate addresses, and the Post Office, which charges them for using postcodes.

    Read more at A one-way street to postcode madness in today’s Guardian:

    Councils say they provide lists of street names and numbers for free – but Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail treat their data as a commercial asset and charge other public bodies to make it available to the wider public.

    …Royal Mail says that the sums are tiny: authorities pay 0.5p a click, or a flat fee per domain. However, councils, under constant pressure to meet new centrally set financial targets, have little slack in their budgets. The final straw is that from October next year, the charge will double. Jennie Longden, head of address management at Royal Mail, says that these are the first price increases since 1995.

    The result, though, could be a grassroots rebellion. David Heyes, address manager at Wigan metropolitan borough council, Greater Manchester, says he is “very uncomfortable” with the click fee.

    ….Datastandard, a web community for professionals, has suggested charging Royal Mail between £250 and £1,000 for notifications of changes to local gazetteers. “I suggest Royal Mail pass on some of their costs to Ordnance Survey, but that’s for them to sort out,” said Robert Kimber, of Luton council.

    Would that be good for free data? No – it’s moving in the opposite direction. What’s needed is a minister or two to bang some heads together. Unfortunately it seems the heads that need banging are within government – possibly inside the Treasury – to stop this madness.

    In the Guardian: people are doing it for themselves

    Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

    The availability of out-of-copyright Ordnance Survey maps has given some people a smart idea: collect postcodes from visitors to the site and link them to the map points. It’s cheaper than licensing it from the OS and Post Office, after all.

    Try it yourself at There’s also, for those equipped with a GPS, the Freethepostcode site.

    And a scheme to be launched next week will try to create an independent map of Britain’s roads, incrementally, from GPS systems in vehicles. But it would go beyond simple location data to include traffic flow data too.

    Read about it at From postcodes to roads, we can collect it ourselves in today’s Guardian.

    In today’s Guardian: who will address the postcode mess?

    Thursday, July 13th, 2006

    In today’s Technology Guardian, Michael Cross examines the Royal Mail’s postcode address file – such a valuable item, if it could only be used well.

    Royal Mail

    is coy about how much the Postcode Address File costs to maintain and how much it receives from licensing, or even whether it runs at a profit.

    Licensing arrangements for the Postcode Address File are only one part of the addressing imbroglio. Even if the Royal Mail were to give the database away to all comers, addressing would still be messy.

    For a start, the postcode file has big gaps. According to Barr, it holds only 60% of buildings in England – the Royal Mail is not interested in structures such as churches, which do not receive mail. Because of the purpose for which they were set up, postcodes may bear little relevance to reality – the initial component, the “post town”, relates to the nearest sorting office rather than the nearest town.

    As Ed Parsons (chief technology officer of Ordnance Survey) noted on this blog, the flaws mean that there are three databases in operation – the RM PAF, the OS’s address layer, and the National Land and Property Gazetteer (I think that’s right on the latter).

    And why?

    This chaos arises directly from the UK government’s policy of encouraging state-owned bodies, which are usually monopolies in their fields, to treat information as an asset to be exploited commercially. Free Our Data argues that this resource should be funded by taxation and made available for free to all takers, to stimulate a vibrant knowledge economy.

    Some heads really need to be knocked together, we think.

    Will the Post Office and Ordnance Survey ever agree about house names?

    Monday, July 10th, 2006

    Part of the reason the previous post was late arriving was because I moved house last week. It went successfully, but here’s an annoyance. In the last house, we changed the name (we didn’t like the old one) – notifying the local council, which accepted the name and put it into its records. Clearly, the council notified the Post Office, which accepted the name… except that it changed the ending of the name, which was “House”, to “Cottage”.

    Now, in no way was our house a cottage. It was a two-storey semi-detached early 1900s building. Clearly, the misnaming was one of those intentional errors that any database compiler puts in so that it can spot people stealing its data (for there’s no copyright in facts, but there is copyright in fiction, so if you add some false data to a database…)

    And now our new home has a name, which differs from the Post Office’s name, which differs too from the OS’s name.

    I can understand that they want to have proprietary ownership of their data, but really, this is ridiculous. The upshot is that when we call people to tell them our new address, if they’re an organisation using the Postcode Address File (PAF), they only want the first line of the address and the postcode. But when you tell them the property name and the postcode, there’s a pause while they try to figure out whether you’re right or they’re right.

    It’s an annoyance, though it’s indicative too of the absurd lengths that the organisations have to go to in order to “protect” their precious data. At the cost of creating hassle for the rest of us..

    Why making satellite navigation data expensive isn’t helpful

    Thursday, April 20th, 2006

    In today’s Guardian I’ve written about the experience of Emlyn Williams – who is perplexed by the fact that delivery drivers with satellite navigation systems can’t find his street, which dates back to the 1980s (when the house was built).

    Why can’t they find it? Because although local councils create the address information, which they send to the Post Office, which sends it to the Ordnance Survey (which “puts it on the map”), satellite navigation companies can’t always afford the OS prices. And councils are barred from selling the location data to satnav companies – because they use OS products to record any changes. (We’ve got council minutes.)

    Which means that in order to save some small sums for the taxpayer, by making OS revenue-neutral, taxpayers have to bear the extra congestion and pollution caused by drivers trying to find locations, while satnav systems’ prices are either kept artificially high, or are inadequate. The data’s all there, recorded by public bodies. Who are we “protecting” by charging so much for it?

    Paying twice for data? Through your council, you might be paying EIGHT times

    Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

    This morning an interesting email dropped into the Guardian’s inbox. It’s quoted here in full with the permission of the author (see end).

    I look after all the maps for the council where I work and yes, even government departments and councils etc have to pay for Ordnance Survey data.

    Local government has interesting scenarios where the taxpayer will pay three times or more for Ordnance Survey Data. One of the most interesting scenarios is Planning Applications.

    • 1st payment to OS: if a member of the public wants to submit a Planning Application they can buy a site plan map, usually from the council (cost of about £25 for an 4 x A4 sheets) or other OS licenced data reseller.
  • 2nd Payment to OS: the Planning Authority (local council) also have to buy their map base from Ordnance Survey every year. Part of what is called the Mapping Services Agreement (MSA) [and a whole other debate hangs around the MSA – CA].
  • 3rd Payment to OS: the member of the public also pays for Ordnance Survey data as part of their normal taxes.
  • There is also a 4th Payment (which is the biggest scandal) that goes to Ordnance Survey and the Post Office, to use our council-created and council-maintained Local Land and Property Gazetteer (LLPG) or local address database. Even though all the councils create and maintain their own address gazetteer, we have to pay the OS and Post Office for the privilege of using that address data.

    The OS says that it owns the copyright of the position of the address, and the Post Office says it own the copyright of the address (because it adds the postcode). Councils therefore have to pay a per-click cost to OS and Post Office to use the council-created addresses on our own website address lookup facilities.

    The irony about all this is that the local council creates the address in the first place (Street Naming and Numbering sections) and gives (for FREE) this information (including site plan) to the Post Office and Ordnance Survey – so they are in essence charging the local council for its own information. Therefore the public have to pay the Council to create the address (Street Naming and Numbering dept) and then pay again to the OS and the Post Office for the right [for the council] to use it.

    Now, if the council wants to use Addresses (LLPG) created by a neighbouring council(s) (eg for cross-council working/Partnership working etc) the cost goes up even more. The tax payer has to pay the council to create the address data (Street Naming and Numbering dept), OS and Post Office to use the address, and again if used on a web address search facility.

    Then a neighbouring council will have to pay extra money to the OS and Post Office to use the same address (if it’s not in its postcode area) and finally pay again to use the address in a address search facility on its website.

    In total the tax payer could pay up to five times for the one address that the council gives to the OS and Post Office for FREE.

    Finally, taxpayers putting in a planning application online for one building/address using OS data could be paying a total of up to eight times for that one address/building data. Now that is scandalous.

    Chris Hancox, GIS Officer, at a council in the Anglian region

    [Editor’s note: some deletions made at writer’s request]

    Which organisations should we be chasing? Let’s make a list..

    Thursday, March 16th, 2006

    One thing that we haven’t done yet – at least, not in full – is to draw up a list of organisations that are government-owned (ie the government is the only shareholder) and which collect and then sell back our data. Often they use the excuse of being “trading funds” – ie told by the Treasury to go out and earn their keep – to claim that they’re not government-funded. But it’s rather like a child still living with its parents. If the trading funds went massively into debt, would the government – of any political colour – shut down Ordnance Survey or the UK Hydrographic Office? We think not. So, they’re really taxpayer-owned. That’s our data!

    So, who is there? Off the cuff we can think of the Ordnance Survey; UK Hydrographic Office; Highways Agency (does it have an equivalent in Scotland?); Post Office. Who else is there?

    Once we do that, we can begin to frame precisely what access we do want, and create a campaign statement that can be framed in precise terms. That’s the sort of thing that ministers, MPs and senior civil servants find compelling.

    Contributions welcome, as always.