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Open data leaders slam government over postcode privatisation

Bryan Glick

The organisation that was given £10m government funding to increase the use of open data across the public sector has hit out at Whitehall plans to allow details of UK postcodes to continue to be sold for profit.

Newspaper reports claim that the government will allow Royal Mail to maintain ownership of the Postcode Address File (PAF), the database containing details of the 24 million property postcodes in the UK.

The data is valuable for online retailers, banks and other organisations that need to use the location of properties to provide services, especially web or mobile services. Campaigners have long called for the PAF to be made publicly available at no cost.

Gavin Starks, chief executive of the Open Data Institute (ODI), said the decision to keep PAF in the private sector “flies in the face of the UK's commitments”.

The ODI, headed by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee (pictured) and web science professor Nigel Shadbolt, was set up last year with £10m of public money. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time that open data was the "next industrial revolution”.

Starks said releasing core country data assets such as this was a basic requirement. 

"We have provided measured and quantified responses to the government arguing the case for PAF as open data. The government's investment in the ODI was based, in part, on helping stimulate UK growth via start-ups that we are helping. This makes that task all the more difficult,” he said.

The ODI’s founders also criticised the move.

Berners-Lee told The Telegraph: “Of course it is disappointing that the Address File has not been made public, a blow to the efficiency of UK businesses large and small. But we have hope. Royal Mail may well decide to do the right thing and make it available as open data.”

Shadbolt described PAF as “key data for further innovation” and “a national asset”.

“The lack of an open data PAF is the single biggest complaint from open data entrepreneurs, and the government’s own Open Data User Group,” he wrote in a blog post.

“The government has promised a ‘right to data’: PAF is the single most requested data set. Royal Mail privatisation presents an opportunity to maximise the economic advantage of the PAF dataset. Ideally this would have happened by taking it out of the hands of Royal Mail and making it open data.”

In an interview with Computer Weekly last year, Shadbolt said the Postcode Address File ought to be opened up. “This is a product that could be hugely useful to SMEs in providing a number of location services,” he said.


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