Addressing Hits the News

Last week was a big week for addressing.  On Monday addresses made the top 10 news on the BBC News website with an item entitled “Ministers criticised for sale of postcode database”. This report came from the Public Administration Committee and was reported in the news item as being pretty scathing about the inclusion of PAF in the sale of Royal Mail when addresses should be considered as a core geography and a national asset. What wasn’t widely reported was that the Committee was looking at “Statistics and Open Data: Harvesting unused knowledge, empowering citizens and improving public services” and as such the report was focussed on open data and the benefits that it could bring.  The criticism of the sale of PAF as part of the privatisation of Royal Mail was only part of the report.

In the report the Open Data User Group said “that the decision to allow Royal Mail to take the PAF into private ownership as a commercial data set, and for Ordnance Survey to participate in the creation of GeoPlace LLP as a trading Value Added Reseller of PAF, appeared to "fly in the face of any Government commitment to Open Data” which is a fair point but it was also noted that the Government recognised that “Royal Mail incurs considerable costs in collecting and maintaining this data and keeping it up to date. I is only reasonable that they should be able to recover some of those costs from the companies that use this data.”  This is also a fair point and pretty key to the whole argument about open data and the fact that someone somewhere incurs costs in collecting the data and in keeping it up to date.

This is where it gets pretty interesting. I’ve previously made the point that Royal Mail spends a reported £25M per annum in maintaining PAF data, GeoPlace spends about £3M and local government somewhere between £16M and £20M and yet government users spend some £8M per annum in licensing addressing datasets. It strikes me that if the effort was better coordinated (and perhaps with a National Address Gazetteer jointly managed in one system by those parties) the costs would be considerably less. It would surely be more likely that funding could then be made available to open up the address dataset. I would argue that because of the current inefficiencies any case to fund open addresses would fail. The PAF Advisory Board is turning its attention to investigating efficiencies within the maintenance of PAF.

The Committee also stated that “The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake. The Government must never make a similar mistake. Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again.” This is interesting as it was pointed out to me that what this means in Government speak is that the Government is not minded to pursue this matter any further and effectively draws a line under it.  However, as the Committee also turned its attention to trading funds, might the lesson be that should any trading fund be privatised in future, that the Government would retain the data?

So the week started with addresses in the news and ended with something which will help progress. In June 2011 I attended the European INSPIRE Conference in Edinburgh and was asked informally whether I thought that the Scottish public sector would be interested in joining the DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) initiative to implement a public sector licence for PAF.  This has rumbled onwards since then and came pretty close to being signed in 2012. The biggest stumbling block arose because the byzantine complexity of PAF licensing got us into the Kafkaesque situation of not knowing how much was actually being paid for PAF licenses by the public sector. This then was subject to an audit and we finally arrived at figures which were believable and most importantly verifiable.

After some considerable negotiations BIS, Scottish Government and Royal Mail finally signed the Public Sector Licence Agreement on Friday to come into effect on 1st April 2014.  This will be a phased approach, with it only covering the PAF royalties in respect of Ordnance Survey addressing products in 2014-2015 but in 2015 will extend to all public sector PAF usage.  This is not free as Royal Mail will retain their current income from the public sector through a single payment from BIS and a similar (but much smaller!) payment from Scottish Government.  What is does mean is that there will not be the requirement for PSL members to record the deployment and calculate the individual royalty payments.  There are still some final details to sort out, but I believe that this is a big step forward.

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