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Postcode Petition Response — Our Reply

Back when this all began, Stuart Harrison set up a petition on the Number 10 website:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to encourage the Royal Mail to offer a free postcode database to non-profit and community websites.”

Details of Petition:

“Royal Mail today sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Ernest Marples Ltd, the organisation providing a post code API allowing social projects to use post code searches. Because of this, many useful websites are no longer functioning, including PlanningAlerts.com, Job Centre Pro Plus and Healthware. We therefore are asking the Prime Minister to encourage to Royal Mail to offer a second free license for non-profit projects of this nature who otherwise could not afford to pay for a license, so they can offer useful location-based services for their users.”

We, of course, eagerly signed up — as did many others. The petition got enough signatures to get a response from Number 10, which has just been issued. Except… it’s not really a response. In that a respond should — well — respond to the points raised, which this one doesn’t.

Instead, we have a history lesson. It’s quite interesting (although not new to us) but it doesn’t address any of the problems raised. It doesn’t talk about the value of data or the importance of PAF or Postzon. It doesn’t even mention open data, or citizen-led web services.

Number 10 has accepted responsibility for liberating public data. They’ve appointed Tim Berners-Lee. It’s the attention that Number 10 have given this issue that led to the launch of data.gov.uk yesterday. And it’s Number 10′s clout that we’ll need to liberate data that’s currently caught up in a web of private commercial interests and archaic bureaucracies.

And yet, on the back of people’s attempts to fix the problem, and specifically given an opportunity to do something at a time when people are engaged, listening and excited, we get the brush-off. A statement containing a lot of words that don’t really say anything.

I’m going to respond to the last two paragraphs specifically.

Postcomm has previously undertaken a public consultation reviewing how the PAF was managed. The consultation started in 2006 and finished in 2007. Postcomm took all the diverse uses of the PAF into account before reaching its decision in 2007…

Ah yes. The hallowed consultation. The one where they considered the diverse uses that the everyone who pays for PAF data puts it to. Is too much to say that a group of companies, making good money from PAF data, might have a vested interest in keeping it locked up behind a paywall? Is it any surprise that the PAF Advisory Board, containing a grand total of zero representatives of the third sector, might not represent our interests?

…announcing more safeguards for the management of the address information held in the PAF with the aim of making sure that the PAF is maintained properly and made available on fair and reasonable terms.

Rubbish. PAF is manifestly not available on fair and reasonable terms.

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?

If any PAF user or stakeholder feels that Royal Mail is not complying with the terms of section 116 of the PSA 2000 or Condition 22 of its licence, they can either raise concerns direct with the company or with Postcomm. Postcomm would consider the merits of any such concerns in the light of its statutory duties.

Again — this entirely misses the point. No one has accused Royal Mail of not complying with its licence. 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.

We’re now in an age where a motivated person with a laptop can use postcode data to improve people’s lives. Postcomm and the Royal Mail need to confront this and change the way that they do things. They may have shut us down, but if they try to sue everyone who’s scraping postcode data from Google, they’ll look very foolish indeed.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — we need a consistent and effective push from the top. Number 10′s right hand needs to wake up and pay attention to the fantastic things the left hand’s doing.

Without that, we won’t get anywhere.

9 Comments

  1. Chris wrote:

    Companies make money from these datasets. they might be undermined if the data was freely released. Most of the data freed up by Government was sloshing around civil service desks. Is it too much of a leap to suppose that the PO datasets are not being released because of lobbyists outside of the PO as well as the PO itself?

    Let’s all keep the pressure up and hope Sir Tim can deliver more.

    Friday, January 22, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  2. I thought you didn’t actually use the PAF, you used a community created dataset like Geonames? Surely that wouldn’t be covered, like the comment “It would of course be very time-consuming and costly for anyone to try to replicate the list”, well, it’s been done pretty much, and then we get told we’re not allowed to create such a list because postcodes are copyright in themselves.

    Friday, January 22, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  3. stan wrote:

    do you not know how much it costs to keep the PAF file up to date? Royal Mail’s not a charity you know…..

    Monday, January 25, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  4. Harry wrote:

    @stan:

    Of course. Government should pay for the data to be maintained for the benefit of the country at large.

    This would cost about £20m a year — not much in governmental terms.

    Monday, January 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  5. Most people don’t even want PAF access!! PostZon, or similar, on the other hand would be extremely valuable for all sorts of location-based things: postcodes have become the standard way to describe where you live, but few websites can legally make use of this.

    A simple Postcode to Lat&Lng (or even OS grid reference, licences permitting) table could be generated with a simple query on the PAF database, costing almost nothing. Continue to charge people for using PAF, where that level of detail is needed (usually commercial operations), but provide postcode location data for everyone else to use.

    They manage it OK in the USA, so why can’t we do it here?

    Monday, January 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Mark Goodge wrote:

    The government’s response is, frankly, pathetic. By going off on a tangent about the PAF they;re missing the point of what we’re really asking for here: Postcode geolocation data (eg, Postzon). So I’ve submitted a separate petition to try to get them to address that point specifically.

    http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/geopostcode/

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  7. stan wrote:

    @ Anthony Cartmell ” They manage it OK in the USA, so why can’t we do it here? ”

    This could be why the USPS is on the verge of collapse and are working on a day to day basis to survive……

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  8. thesis freak wrote:

    Well I think its a really good petition, especially when you count BBC’s article and it’s quote “According to Royal Mail’s latest figures, this has more than doubled over the past year to £6.8bn, and it warned that a fresh valuation scheduled for later in 2009 could record an even higher figure.”

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  9. I was thinking that this base is free. Maybe for use on to webpages, they make some problem. I hasn`t any problem to take this information…

    Friday, July 30, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] 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, [...]

  2. uberVU - social comments on Friday, January 22, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by harrym: Our response to Number 10′s statement on postcodes: http://bit.ly/8DtlOZ #ernestmarples #omg #totalfail #grr…

  3. [...] Number 10 don’t seem to have noticed, but we have — and it’s so important that every right-thinking person in the land responds. We’ve got to tell the Ordnance Survey what we think — if we don’t, only incumbent commercial interests will respond. And if that happens, you can bet that whatever we end up with will be very similar to the status quo. [...]

  4. Number 10’s e-petitions can be better - Harry Metcalfe on Monday, February 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    [...] still stuck in the mud? Why do we get responses to petitions that range from the dishonest to the obtuse, and only the occasional gem, when it really should be the other way [...]