Should the UK go Dutch with data in 2012?

Last month, all data from the Dutch ‘key register’ of addresses and buildings (BAG) was made available for re-use without additional conditions. This will include all commercial re-use and publication. More importantly, it will also apply to all postal codes contained within the data.

World leader for a reason

No doubt the verdict will be welcomed by open data campaigners, who have had postcodes on their wish lists for many years. What they seem to forget, however, is that the address database we have in the UK is a world leader for a reason: Royal Mail invests in it heavily, and the profits made from the data are reinvested into the dataset’s maintenance. With up to 5,000 updates to the underlying data every day, caused by changes such as new builds, the PAF® dataset is not a static file, and it’s not just a case of pushing a button to make any part of it freely available.

Arguments for open data…

The arguments for open postcode data have been voiced many times. An open registry would stimulate more efficient and consistent use of address information as a national, public asset. In an information-driven age, the use of open data can help to improve public services in countless ways. Despite concerns with security, opening access to data has been proven to improve public sector efficiency, transparency and accountability that will have the potential to stimulate growth for the UK considerably.

…and the argument against

But while there is potential for public benefit, PAF® address data is a commercial dataset used by private enterprise. It takes money to maintain – money currently generated through private sales of the data. Whatever the potential might be, would it be wise to invest a significant chunk of taxpayers’ money unless there is good evidence of real return on public investment?

National Address Gazetteer

It will now be interesting to see if the UK government will follow the Dutch. It does seem possible, because there is a strong case for at least parts of the National Address Gazetteer to be open data, free at the point of use to all sectors.

Revenue stream vital to upkeep

However, one significant challenge will be that Royal Mail owns the intellectual property rights (IPR) of the UK postcode system, so without their cooperation it’s not going to happen. And no doubt Royal Mail will be keen to point out that the revenue stream generated by PAF® royalties are vital to the upkeep of the dataset. The question, then, is whether the UK government will want to either purchase the IPR or fund the process. I can’t see that decision being taken quickly in this age of austerity.

We would like to hear your opinions: should the UK go Dutch, and why?

Should the UK go Dutch?

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  • Hi Phil,
    Thank you for sharing your views on sharing Royal Mail’s data.
    I think, however, that the situation is slightly different in the Netherlands, as the BAG data is not the Dutch postal code data of PostNL, but the data from the civil communities’ registers.
    This data is maintained by the local civic authorities while performing their public services. Those tasks need to be done anyway, and with quality. Processes have been designed for that.
    The exciting point is, I admit, that postal codes are included in the data, free of charge for commercial use.
    I hope this helps.


  • Andrew Bailey

    How about limited API access for non-commercial use?