This article was published on January 22, 2010

Open data? “Don’t take the Postcodes!” says UK government

Open data? “Don’t take the Postcodes!” says UK government
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Editor-in-Chief at TNW.

Postcode: Image: the UK has embraced open data over the past couple of weeks, don’t bank on postcodes being free for app developers to use any time soon.

After first London and then the UK government freed up a wide array of data, you might think that there was an appetite for change in the corridors of power. That appetite doesn’t quite stretch everywhere quite yet.

Number 10 Downing Street has today responded to a petition calling for the postcode database to be opened up for free use by non-profit and community websites. Its response? We’d sum it up as a dismissive “Meh”.

Until recently Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd offered a postcode API for such sites to use for looking up addresses. Sites using this technology included, Job Centre Pro Plus and Healthware. Following a ‘Cease & Desist’ order from the Royal Mail, the company that owns and operates the country’s postcode database, this service was discontinued and a petition tabled to the Prime Minister via the Number site.

The government’s response to the issue? Basically to shrug its shoulders and say “Nothing to do with us”. You can read the full response here, but there’s no admission that postcode data is a national asset that should be free to use by non-profit companies. Instead they simply suggest that anyone upset with the way should contact Postcomm, the body that reviewed the way postcode data is held in 2007. Not exactly a glowing endorsement of open data, eh?

Postcode data is an important revenue stream for the struggling Royal Mail; to give it up entirely would be perhaps a step too far, too soon. However, to give it to companies creating social good without a profit motive can’t do any harm, can it? After all, these are the companies that can’t afford a license for the data. If they’re not going to make money, why not give them it for free?

Ernest Marples has responded to Number 10’s brush-off on its blog. It says:

“It is not fair or reasonable to ask tiny organisations, working for social good, to stump up thousands of pounds a year to use data that that’s as much a part of our national infrastructure as roads and telephone lines.

Royal Mail currently charge a £750 data delivery fee — in addition to the licence fee — if you elect to obtain PAF via a download. On what planet is it fair or reasonable to charge £750 for a download?”

Responding to Number 10’s lack of appetite for opening up postcodes, the company explains:

The problem isn’t that Royal Mail isn’t complying to its licence terms — I’m sure it is — the problem is that its licence doesn’t contain the right terms in the first place.

The problem is that the licence was formed to suit industry. To suit people who resell PAF data, and who use it to save money and do business. And that’s fine — I have no problem with industry, commercialism or using public data to make a profit.

But this approach belongs to a different age. One where the only people who needed postcode data were insurance and fulfilment companies. Where postcode data was abstruse and obscure. We’re not in that age any more.”

Expect this one to run and run. We have a feeling that there are a lot of developers who won’t stop until postcodes join all the rest of the UK data that’s being freed up for use this year.

[Image credit: Ewan M]

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.