Postcodes, PAF and Pseudonymisation

A number of today’s papers are reporting on the government’s plans to offer up Royal Mail for private investment, and the implications for the Postcode Address File (PAF). Cabinet Minister Francis Maude is claimed to be concerned that if PAF is sold with Royal Mail, then the government will end up spending a fortune on licenses for future access to it (a situation which apparently arose in the Netherlands).

PAF is already a tightly-regulated product, with strict controls imposed on Royal Mail’s access fees. Postcodes were originally introduced by Royal Mail to facilitate automated sorting of deliveries, back in the days before computers were available to support that process. They’re now used for a whole host of purposes, from insurance and credit rating, through to navigation and lotteries.

But the underlying format of the postcode is a machine-centric construct which has been superseded by technology, which could sort using any form of unique serialisation for an address or group of addresses. So here’s a thought: why not allow pseudonymisation of postcodes in much the same was as URL shorteners can provide alternative URLs for websites? A customer simply enters a postcode on a website, assigns the personalisation they want, pays a fee and thereafter any automated sorting system which spots the the personalised code can look up the original and sort accordingly (this could be  done during the initial OCR/keying that prints phosphor sorting dots on the envelope). Similar lookups would work for navigation, lotteries etc.

If we assume there are approximately 22m households in the UK, of which just 5% pay £20 p.a. for a personalised postcode, and a further 0.5% pay £100 p.a. for an ‘elite’ level of personalisation, we’d be bringing in £33m p.a. simply for the personalisation service – and that’s got to be handy for Royal Mail’s prospectus.

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