Royal Mail postcode GIS - should be public data

I am a freelance database engineer presently serving a combination of corporate clients in the scientific and building engineering disciplines, and small public clients supporting social services. My clients increasingly need me to visualise data mashups combining sets of postal addresses, with these government data. However, as a small one-man business I do not have the financial firepower to compete directly with international corporations in subscribing to the prohibitively expensive (indeed extortionate) schemes run by Royal Mail for publishing their data.

I am also concerned that Royal Mail might even cynically use what is left of their dwindling resources to pay an army of lawyers to prosecute people like me for the mere act of creating our own (less accurate) postal-code-district geocoding databases WITHOUT recourse to any of their data. Merely being sued (even with a baseless case) would be too expensive for me.

It is my understanding that these data were originally paid for out of the public purse, though they have since been maintained by Royal Mail to accommodate gradual demographic changes. Royal Mail postal code lat/long and OS grid-reference geocoding data should be public; or else the Government should develop a rival system based on OS grid references, lat/long coordinates or traditional (pre-1974) counties. Royal Mail has made a total mess of county boundaries in the UK for historical applications like genealogy (particularly where this discipline is combined with statistical science), and frankly I feel they should no longer be the custodians of our only viable source of geocoding data, "updating" the system according to their own commercial priorities.

Royal Mail has major financial problems on both strategic and operational levels:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8304722.stm

It is dangerous that our only viable postal geocoding data are currently the intellectual property of an organisation in this position and with this long-term outlook. It bodes ill for the future of geocoding. I believe no other advanced Western country is being held to ransom in this way.

All the same we must recognise that our dedicated postmen (who were until recently classed as low-grade civil servants, or, people in the public service) are not to blame for this mess - it was always an inevitable consequence of the information age.

The solution? Either compensate Royal Mail adequately for the renationalisation of their geocoding data (whilst requiring them to use the injection of funds to cover their pension black-hole, and not to pay dividends); or else, scrap the entire decrepit 20th-Century system and replace it with something better in short order (something looking more like the American or German system please.)

After a web search, I just read this article:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8402327.stm
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I am confused about whether this decision has already been made, or whether this is still at the consultation stage. Please will you make this clearer?

Submitter name: 
Matthew Slyman

Comments

Support

I fully support the proposal to free the post code data

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I also agree with this

I also agree with this proposal. Free post code data would be a catalyst for many, small companies and freelance operations, to sell their applications and help kick-start GIS business in the UK.

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Support but...

I support the freeing of postcode geocoding data. I believe it's already been decided that this will happen: Ordnance Survey will release the PostZon data, but the Royal Mail PAF file (data about individual postal addresses) won't be included.

However: postal counties are generally pre-1974 counties as they never changed. It's not correct to say that Royal Mail has made a total mess of counties. And the Royal Mail postcode system is far more precise and extensible than the US or continental systems. Canada adopted a system loosely based on the British one.

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Precision/ extensibility/ information efficiency of postcode

Regarding the suggestion that the British system is more precise and extensible; it depends on what kind of precision and extensibility you're looking for; but broadly speaking, this is a misconception. The USA has both 5-digit and 9-digit ZIP codes. If you want precision, you just need to use the 9-digit codes. With 1-billion possible zipcodes, there are more than enough to go around and to make the system useful for geographical, demographic AND postal purposes. On the other hand, the RM system was designed almost exclusively for postal route optimisation; making it far less useful for other purposes.

Would you care to analyse the UK's system and see how many possible codes it offers? May I suggest an upper limit of about 1/4 as many codes as the U.S. 9-digit system? In practise though, the upper PRACTICAL limit for the UK system is MUCH lower, because of its complexity of implementation.

Regarding "extensibility"; in the context of the 9-digit ZIP's superiority over the UK postcode system, a cynic would surmise that RM's postcode "extensibility" means that Royal Mail can change the PAF database whenever they want to (and change it significantly), in order to make more money and persuade people it's worth subscribing.

More objectively, "extensibility" as you appear to understand it, actually means the system is sparsely used (i.e., comparatively few of the possible combinations of letters and numbers actually constitute real postcodes, allowing RM to insert new postcodes without "changing" the system by increasing the number of letters and numbers in each postcode.) IN other words, most of the information in the postcode is wasted.

The UK postcode system is an almighty mess; a jumble of letters and numbers that is difficult to verify. Yeah, okay; you can do VERY BASIC verification easily enough. But like for like, to achieve the same thing; it's much harder work.

The Canadians really shouldn't have followed our "lead". They should throw off their colonial shackles and follow the Americans in this particular case.

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Counties and postcodes - accuracy...

Before 1974, everyone understood what a "county" was. Since 1974, the word "county" has gradually approached obsolescence; due to Royal Mail's creation of "postal counties", and the ensuing confusion with _ceremonial_ counties, lieutenancies, traditional/ historical counties, administrative counties and modern regions. Because of the confusion, there are MANY articles on the subject. See, for example:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counties_of_the_United_Kingdom

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postal_counties_of_the_United_Kingdom

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_counties_of_the_United_Kingdom

http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/ISO_3166-2:GB/

If you can figure it all out and set up a consistent method of addressing and categorising based on counties, that will be accepted by those who need to use the system on a day-to-day basis; you're smarter than me for sure. Conclusion: Royal mail and the 1974 government trashed counties for almost all useful purposes. They're obsolete now, in most places, for most purposes. Since Royal Mail trashed county boundaries and muddied the waters on the differences between different types of counties (unforgivably, they CREATED new types of counties); so because of their folly it has become essential to use RM's PostZon database to make sense of it all. Who exactly does this benefit?

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It's not difficult. A county

It's not difficult. A county post 1974 is a ceremonial/lieutenancy one.

There is and was never such thing as a traditional/historical county, because this is a term made up by people who were against the Local Government Act of 1972.

Administrative counties were the areas of the old counties that were governed by a county council and so this excluded the old county boroughs. This was all pre 1974 by the way.

As for the postal counties, well this wouldn't have been such a botch job if Royal Mail had followed the boundary changes to the letter. Instead, they decided to omit Greater London and Greater Manchester, for fear of confusion with the postal towns of the same name.

Anyway, in short, counties are no longer needed for delivering post, so they should just do away with the system altogether in Royal Mail, saving any further "calamity."

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Lack of open postcode data is

Lack of open postcode data is a problem which really affects community groups. It should be public data.

Examples:

http://www.cyclestreets.net/blog/2009/10/08/free-the-postcode/
http://www.cyclestreets.net/blog/2009/12/30/i-cant-find-my-postcode/

and Ernest Marples, who have been trying to force the issue into the public sphere:
http://ernestmarples.com/blog/

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Strongly agree

I strongly agree with this. Post Codes should be a fully open public resource and batch convertible to other UK geographic mapping formats

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From an earlier

From an earlier comment:
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http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8402327.stm
I am confused about whether this decision has already been made, or whether this is still at the consultation stage. Please will you make this clearer?
~~~~~~

The BBC info includes "Following a brief consultation, the postcode information is set to be freed in April 2010. " Is there any update on this? Thanks!

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Postal Services Bill

http://www.consumerfocus.org.uk/post-information/postal-services-bill

It seems from this article that the British Government is proposing to take on Royal Mail's pensions black-hole (caused by bending the rules for excessive private profit in the late 1990's), subsidise the universal postal service, and yet, not get any benefits out of Royal Mail in exchange.

The postcode data should be on the table. We cannot allow private speculators to gain all the benefits, cherry-pick the most profitable parts of the postal "business", and yet carry none of the risks!

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What about this news years ago -Postcode data to be free in

I am trying to find if I could get hold on to the UK postcode data and read below article which tells that this data (from Royal Mail) will be free after Apr 2010 (Should be free now)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8402327.stm

Is this true that this data is free now or the decision is changed?  I rang royal mail yesterday and they still are asking more than £4K for this data to be used by any website.  Can anyone explain please?

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Code-Point Open

To clarify the current position:

Ordnance Survey released a free geocoded postcode data set in April 2010. It's called Code-Point Open and you can get it here:

http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/products/code-point-open/

Royal Mail has a product called Postzon that also includes coordinates (grid references), but it's not free:

http://www.royalmail.com/marketing-services/address-management-unit/address-data-products/postzon-data/details

At the moment there is still no open source of coordinates for individual addresses.

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