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But the underlying format of the postcode is a machine-centric construct which has been superseded by technology, which could sort using any form of unique serialisation for an address or group of addresses.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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It’ll be tough with the current mail sortation technology. Each element of the postcode hones the post in step by step to its intended destination. The last letter of each postcode dictates a “route” which the postman walks. With your proposal the final letter wouldn’t dictate a specific route and would need to be checked an additional time, in its entirety, to decide which route bag the mail should go in which would be time consuming and costly. There are some non-geographical postcodes out there for companies or Buckingham Palace but as they receive large amount of mail it doesn’t cause too much of a sortation issue, but if you were to think of a household receiving 1 handwritten letter a week that’s when you hit a problem…..and an expensive problem. There is no doubt a way of implementing this but you’d need to change the way in which the mail is sorted, which in turn has a cost associated to it and if that cost doesn’t outweigh the profit to be made……..etc.
1. In view of the above, amused to remember earlier claims that the Identity Assurance Programme relies on the private sector and that the Post Office is a private sector company. 2. Re identification/pseudonymisation/anonymisation, geen meaning to ask you, Toby, about your earlier post, Real Time Identity? and the claim that: In the IDA model, the government provides a number of ‘federation hubs’, which provide the data-matching, anonymisation and audit services to support interaction between a market of identity providers (IDPs) and the government departments that will consume identity information. If the hubs support anonymous use, how can transactions be audited? Contrarywise, if the hubs can be audited, how can users be anonymous? I may be wrong but it looks to me as though those two are mutually exclusive. 3. Note that the Government Digital Service are having a bit of trouble establishing the address of voters on the electoral register, see Simplifying the transition to Individual Electoral Registration. Need to solve that before introducing pseudonymisation and further complexity.