Post code address file: Tom Steinberg and I would agree on the idiocy of Royal Mail

A number of non-profit online services face closure today, after Royal Mail sent a cease and desist letter to free post code campaigners. The services affected include Job Centre Pro Plus, which allows you to find jobs near you. Royal Mail is currently looking to slim its workforce of 121,000 postal workers.

Royal Mail today sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Ernest Marples Ltd, the organisation providing a post code API allowing social projects to use post code searches.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group (of which I’m an Advisory Council member) said:

“It’s outrageous that Royal Mail should be sacking workers and at the same time trying to close a service that might help them find work.

“Post codes were created with public money, so they need to be used for the widest public benefit. Ernest Marples have been showing how this can be done. Their ideas need to be legalised for non-profit use, not shut down.

“Intellectual Property rules need to work for society, and not the other way round.

“An amicable solution to allow non-commercial use of post code data would be easy to create, via a key given only to non-profit organisations. Clearly, something that allows greater use of post codes is needed right now.

“Better access to information means more social and democratic benefits.”

Other services facing closure include Planning Alerts, which finds planning applications near your post code, and The Straight Choice (unfortunate name), detailing election leaflets and their claims by post code.

These services are free to UK citizens and they make their lives easier, yet because of the rigidity of Royal Mail, they’re going to closed down. It’s silly. And yet another example of how a big institution fails the innovation test when it comes to the Internet. Tom and I would agree on this point, I’m sure.

The campaigners behind Ernest Marples are programmers Richard Pope and Harry Metcalfe. Harry is also a member of ORG’s board. He is taking no part in ORG’s campaigning on this issue.

23 comments ↓

#1 Dafydd Vaughan on 10.05.09 at 2:49 pm

This is a disgrace. Neither the developers nor the projects using the API were making a profit from it. The likelihood of them ever being able to afford the extortionate price for the database is negligible.

The Royal Mail need to pulled in front of parliament and slapped for this. The post code database was developed using public money, it should be available for free to not-for-profit organisations.

Innovation in the UK will take yet another step backwards because of this.

#2 Simon Dickson on 10.05.09 at 3:14 pm

I’m not the slightest bit surprised this has happened. I assumed the whole point was to ‘draw the sting’: to make Royal Mail complain (as was surely inevitable), leading to a debate around the subject, leading to what is surely the only sensible conclusion – the freeing up of postcodes. But I have to say, judging by the announcement on the site’s blog, it doesn’t look like they had a plan B ready to go.

#3 Kian Ryan on 10.05.09 at 3:26 pm

Postcodes are the most common piece of geographical data used in this country – they are used for everything from GPS navigation through to proximity searches to ensuring a letter reaches its intended destination.

*Any* new project, be it for-profit or not-for-profit which relies of geographical location needs access to this data. This data should really be in the public domain. Otherwise non-profits and start-ups wont be able to afford access to this data, and we’ll fall behind in these markets.

#4 Mark Steadman on 10.05.09 at 3:27 pm

Quelle surprise: old media organisation in lack-of-engagement shocker.

Postcode data is public information, and the Royal Mail have no rights to monopolise it. If we want to make money from that information, we should be able to, as it is our data. Likewise if we want to use it for any reason, it’s ours to do with as we wish. It was not invented by the Royal Mail, so they have no legitimate claim to restrict access to it.

Of course it strikes a blow for non-profits aswell, but it all comes down to one organisation hogging data it has no rights over.

#5 JackP on 10.05.09 at 3:33 pm

The problem is very much that the Royal Mail is being run as a business rather than as a service to the country.

When you consider many local authorities (and similar organisations) pay a considerable sum of money on a yearly basis to have access to the postcode data, there is a definite financial imperative for the RM to hang on to this data as much as possible.

But it’s down to the ethos: you can either have something running as a business (attempting to make a profit – or maybe in some cases a smaller loss) or as a service to the community. The two do not make easy bedfellows.

#6 Samscam on 10.05.09 at 3:47 pm

I’m insanely hacked off with the way Royal Mail handle their postcode data.

I’d argue that the whole thing should be opened up to commercial and non-commercial entities alike. My reasons are nothing new:

1) Living in a relatively new flat (it’s three years old) means that many organisations I deal with completely fail to find my address or just get it plain wrong. Simply because they buy a dump of the database every couple of years whichever snapshot they have at the moment is somewhat behind reality.

To give royal mail some credit they have managed to deliver mail to me with a very wide range of crazy address variations, but they aren’t helping themselves by allowing this kind of nonsense to be proliferated by their own reluctance to open the data up.

2) The importance of geolocation and context sensitive online services to the economy should not be underestimated. Postcodes represent a well-understood mechanism for reducing a geographic position to a short string, and that’s insanely valuable for businesses, members of the public and the developers who are building the glue in between them…. The services mentioned in the post are just the tip of the iceberg.

3) There is always a work-around. I recently had to implement an accurate-ish reverse geocode from postcodes for a project. The way to do it at the time was to either use the recently leaked (partial) database (which I avoided as I figured it might open us up to the ire of Royal Mail) or perform a Google Local search for the postcode and grab the longitude and latitude of the first result – which worked a treat. Are Royal Mail going to go after Google too? Somehow I suspect not.

Anyway, point is that Royal Mail should be offering a proper, preferably free and open, postcode API service for the world + dog.

S

#7 Dubber on 10.05.09 at 3:49 pm

I keep having to remind myself that we’re not talking about the recording industry here. It’s at least good to know that they don’t have the monopoly on anti-culture, anti-citizen copyright authoritarianism.

There seems to be a need for a clear definition of copyright and its purpose. Are we trying to be protectionist and prop up businesses that are failing in a new media environment because they refuse to innovate? If so, we should be clear about that.

Otherwise, can we please make it perfectly plain at a policy level that the purpose of copyright is to incentivise creativity, innovation and works that add to culture and knowledge for the benefit of society at large?

That would be very helpful.

#8 Richard E on 10.05.09 at 3:50 pm

I agree that there should be a way for nonprofits etc to access the Royal Mail database legally for nothing for public service purposes.

I also agree that Royal Mail should be run as a public service and not as a business. It can’t be run as a business by definition, as it has to provide universal service, while its competitors are free to cream off the easiest, most profitable routes which would otherwise subsidise expensive (eg rural) aspects of that universal service.

However, I am also of the opinion that the case against ErnestMarples.com is without merit in that it assumes that they are accessing the Royal Mail database without a licence to do so.

Surely if I publish my postcode on my web site, for example, or otherwise make it available in such a way that it can be found with a search engine, then *I* am providing the information and not the database. And I don’t recall signing anything in which I agreed that parts of my postal address weren’t mine to give out to interested parties if I so desire – indeed, such an idea is preposterous.

My assumption is that ErnestMarples.com is simply trawling the Net for UK postcodes published by those who inhabit or operate from them, and thus, surely, no infringement has taken place?

#9 Tim hobbs on 10.05.09 at 4:40 pm

Royal Mail will quickly have to learn that whilst the PAF data is convenient and useful it is not the only show in town. As mobile services gather pace and GPS is built into more and more mundane devices it will be less and less important.

So they must either free up the data or drive more users to find and identify those alternatives – google maps being an obvious one.

#10 Oliver Stanton on 10.05.09 at 4:46 pm

Planning alerts – a wonderful service. I can only see google benefiting from such action.

#11 Gary Smith on 10.05.09 at 4:54 pm

The Google API neatly sidesteps a lot of the issues of postcode data and geotagging/geolocation, but it doesn’t solve the issue at the heart of this, which is that the postcode system was essentially created with public money. When Royal Mail was privatised, they were essentially given the “product”, to licence back to the people that originally paid for it. Utter genius.
I doubt that anybody would have had the foresight to see that one coming, so it’s just something that we’re going to have to solve now… but there’s not going to be an easy answer to it. It’s a nice cash cow for Royal Mail and they’ve got no real impetus to give free use to certain groups or individuals, so why should they?

Please don’t think that I’m fighting their corner – I’m not, I’d much rather see the postcode data fully made available for free, but look at it from the other side. If you were the Royal Mail, what would you do?

#12 Julian Todd on 10.05.09 at 5:31 pm

Apparently the minister in charge has no representations for making the Postcode Address File (a) cheaper or (b) free from anyone.

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-01-12g.244333.h

What exactly have you been doing with your time in Parliament, Tom?

#13 Francis Davey on 10.05.09 at 6:41 pm

In answer to an earlier poster who thought that maybe the site was acting lawfully – that unfortunately is not the point. Most community non-profit sites do not have the resources to fight Royal Mail. Once court action starts the legal costs meter starts running.

I am afraid rolling over and giving in may be all that one can do in these situations however strong one’s case.

#14 chloe on 10.05.09 at 7:10 pm

I work for royal mail and i know my managers use google to lookup incomplete addresses and not the royal mails own software because it is more accurate and up to date and does not have to be licensed to each computer in their office.

businesses and charities publish their addresses on their websites, estate agents and online property services
use often list postcodes that can be found by search engines.

I enjoy working for royal mail and I am not a royal mail hater but they are behind the times and still fear the internet, texting, email and so on. there is a time to let go and provide a service and garner appreciation not cling to old ways of thinking and short term profits.

#15 Royal Mail shut down useful community websites on 10.05.09 at 10:14 pm

[...] Tom Watson [...]

#16 Martin, CycleStreets on 10.05.09 at 10:51 pm

@Richard E: The difference is that giving away a single postcode doesn’t contain the database right that a compiled database has.

@chloe: Text/Geolocation and other methods are reducing the importance of postcodes – but the expectation of typing in postcodes into webpages isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Our website really needs full postcode searching, but as a not-for-profit the kind of money concerned to buy the PAF doesn’t come easily. Sadly all the other options are incomplete – and using the Google reverse geocoder requires use of their map base to be within their T&Cs.

The PAF needs to be made freely accessible, as a public resource. But that needs to come through legal change (not ripping it off), and perhaps the current Earnest Marples stunt will help make that happen.

What are/were ErnestMarples.com actually using? Returning for the first response from a range of APIs?

#17 Scott K on 10.05.09 at 11:49 pm

In Postcomm’s review of the PAF (postcode address file) management, it agreed that Royal Mail should be able to “recover enough revenue to cover reasonable costs plus an operating profit margin of around 8-10%.” and also agreed that Royal Mail should pay (ie charge itself) for use of PAF.

The review stopped short of recommending that the PAF be spun out to its own company – rather, it’s in Royal Mail but surrounded by “Chinese Walls”.

Postcomm also noted that “As a result of the issues of database rights and IP rights, licences are particularly complex” – but it then washed its hands of them.

Their report also shows that Royal Mail made £1.5 million in profit from the PAF data.

It’s a shame that spin-out wasn’t considered. Surely a better, safer, fairer approach would be to go for a Linx type approach – a not for profit trust, that manages, maintains and develops the PAF, and sets the charges appropriately – including, possibly, letting it be free for non-profit/public use.

#18 Open Knowledge Foundation Blog » Blog Archive » Ernest Marples UK postcode site has been taken down on 10.06.09 at 2:04 pm

[...] Watson MP, who was keynote at our 5th Communia Workshop in London earlier this year, [...]

#19 CycleStreets » Blog on 10.08.09 at 12:21 pm

[...] written a great letter to Royal Mail on the issue of postcode database availability following an earlier blog post he made. (NB CycleStreets does not, and will not, have any party-political affiliation.) It will be [...]

#20 Save Ernest Marples | otrops on 10.08.09 at 11:35 pm

[...] has been covered elsewhere by the Open Rights Group, Tom Watson, The Guardian Free Our Data blog and Boing Boing. Since they’ve already done a stellar job of [...]

#21 UK: Tracking government information on transparency websites :: Elites TV on 10.09.09 at 3:10 pm

[...] But amid the setbacks, the open data campaign is fast gaining pace, and political support. One of the first people to write about the Royal Mail’s action? Tom Watson, MP, an advisory council member to the Open Rights Group (ORG). [...]

#22 Royal Mail Rub Our Noses in it | Software Cooperative News on 10.21.09 at 8:24 am

[...] after Royal Mail shut down useful community websites causing MP comments on the idiocy of Royal Mail, I was rather surprised to get this little thing in the post [...]

#23 Developers dismayed as No.10 blocks free postcode file | World BB News on 01.24.10 at 4:49 am

[...] it seems that the PAF’s licensing is a problem. As a commenter called Chloe points out in a comment to one of Tom Watson MP’s posts about RM and PAF, “I work for royal mail and i know my managers use google to lookup incomplete [...]

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