Should PAF® and Other National Address Datasets be Free?

I don’t often put pen to paper on this subject, largely because I know that publicly collected data is a bit of a “hot potato” for some people.  However, I thought that you might like my views on the arguments aired this week by The Open Data User Group for Royal Mail to make the postcode address file (PAF®) data available for free on the basis that it will encourage mass adoption.

The basis of the ODUG argument is that removing the charge for Royal Mail’s database of the 29m addresses in the UK would bring benefits to business that want to use accurate addressing but find the cost and licensing regime imposed by the Royal Mail too onerous.

While I’m all in favour of easy access to data through simpler and more cost effective licensing, I think that the Open Data Group and Central Government in particular, live under the misguided belief that just because something is ‘free at the point of use’ there will be mass adoption.

The reality, however, is somewhat different as the lack of take-up in data.gov and in OS Open data has demonstrated since launch.

I can think of a number of instances which illustrate this from the nonsensical mash-ups of things like historical health data and locations; to the Public Sector Mapping Agreement which was launched over 18 months ago at a cost of £50 million or more to encourage widespread use of OS data across local and central government, and which has seen very little interest – in spite of the cost and the fact that its free to users.

I should know as we have had numerous conversations with government departments on the matter which have gone precisely nowhere.

If I’m honest, with organisations like data.gov, the difficulty lies in trying to reconcile the interests of all relevant parties; of government and the media in general who want open data because they feel that it will help to expose areas of waste and neglect and to provide good stories with the technical experts who won’t be interested in doing anything with it unless the data is useful and that they can make a reasonable return.

The PAF® database, for example, is provided in eight separate files. It has to be normalised and assembled for it to make sense and then technology needs to be applied to enable the information to be easily searched and then kept up-to-date thereafter.

While I would certainly agree that small businesses benefit from having access to the latest addressing details, for example to support the sales and delivery processes in e-commerce, to suggest that they are being priced out of getting their hands on such information is wide of the mark.

As most of our customers have found to their advantage, a great deal has changed over the last ten years. Small businesses can access ‘what’s your postcode technology?’ within their website from as little as £25, a fraction of the cost of buying the database and trying to do it yourself.

 


  • The argument in part that has been advanced is that “public” data should be “free” to the taxpayers who “paid” for it. This ignores the cost of collecting and maintaining the data which if the data was free would be paid for through increased postage or increased taxes. As the consumers of the data are in the main commercial entities, then why should Royal Mail customers or taxpayers indirectly subsidise commercial businesses?

  • Paul

    I think the PAF too is an incredible useful database. I believe mass adoption would be taken up. I would love a website where customers can type in their postcode and their address details would populate the fields free of charge to the business. No more incorrect addresses and courier re-visits. In its present state having to pay for postcode lookups is just another charge in a long line for an e-commerce companies which are pushed to the limits by competition.

    you might say a postcode lookup is a small charge to pay, so will the credit card company who take a percentage, so will the company who provides the secure environment (like Sagepay) who process the payments, so will the special label paper providers who provide the paper for printing the order on. All these charges just to process and print an order.