Postcodes: Adam Crozier letter

I think it speaks for itself. If you have views on this issue, please share them in the comments section below. I’m pretty certain they’ll get read by the Royal Mail.
letter-to-royal-mail
Adam Crozier letter

Dear Mr Crozier,

ErnestMarples.com was set up in July to provide a free service to
convert postcodes to physical coordinates. Its founders believe that such a service is fundamental if we are to create an ecosystem for innovation on the web.

On Friday 2nd October, ErnestMarples.com was forced to close down
because of legal action by Royal Mail. As its services also powered
other sites, this has had a knock-on effect meaning the likes of Jobcentreproplus.com, planningalerts.com and thestraightchoice.com are
now no longer functional either.

The heavy handed approach by the Royal Mail to a growing sector of not-for-profit citizen focused websites is not new but still deeply regrettable. As a minister, I initiated a conversation that I hoped would lead to Royal Mail taking a more flexible approach with the web community who seek to use geo-spatial co-ordinates to develop new and innovative services that help the public in their daily lives.

I take the position that the postcode file and the data set of physical co-ordinates that go with it are a national asset that should be freely available to any UK citizen. I understand, though, that in the short term the entrepreneurs in your organisation have monetised their monopoly supply of the file to generate income of about £11 million a year.

We live in tough economic times. I’m a realist. But I do hope that you can apply your considerable talents to find an amicable solution that allows the profit making direct-mail industry to pay a fair fee for a postcode database license, whilst allowing the non-profit sector to flourish and innovate. Do this, and you might even stimulate a market niche of profit making internet related companies that can sustain Royal Mail in the digital age.

I intend to raise this matter with ministers in Parliament next week and look forward to hearing from you.

53 comments ↓

#1 bobsonsirjonny on 10.07.09 at 12:40 am

Why, why why are you working as a Labour MP.. Honestly, you actually speak a lot of sense.. I just cant vote for your lot.. sorry.. please defect!

I agree that Royal Mail are being too heavy handed here.. they need to embrace the web; indeed they could take the bull by the horns and even provide a post-code based geo-encoding service themselves..

They could have two licences – one free for non profits, and one commercial. They have a lot of data which could be put to much better use than junk mail / direct marketing.. or do we nationalise them again?

#2 Doug Aitken on 10.07.09 at 2:00 am

Tom, I completely agree.

I also agree with the above comment, you speak sense!

#3 William on 10.07.09 at 7:20 am

Terrific letter. Meanwhile (as you already picked up/Tweeted) the US yesterday made the Federal Register available free in XML (previously $17k) – “an important step towards open source America’s operating system”

The contrast is pretty stark.

#4 The Open Sourcerer on 10.07.09 at 7:54 am

Tom, a good letter although I would have used stronger language. As far as I am concerned “we” the tax payers own this data not RM. It is, as you say, a public asset.

I hope you are thinking of swapping sides before May 2010… We need more enlightened and ‘awake’ MPs like yourself.

#5 alan p on 10.07.09 at 7:59 am

@bobsonsirjonny interesting thought – the story of digital media is unbundling of what you want from the package, imagine if you could vote for the politicians you wanted rather than by party.

#6 Paul Downey on 10.07.09 at 8:00 am

I’m a big supporter of a publicly owned Post Office, but this monopolistic behavior is simply ludicrous in a digital age. Dear Post Office: publish the Post Codes free to all before you drive us to collectively create a new system, open from the start.

#7 Glyn Moody (glynmoody) 's status on Wednesday, 07-Oct-09 07:09:01 UTC - Identi.ca on 10.07.09 at 8:09 am

[…] http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/2009/10/postcodes-adam-crozier-letter/ a few seconds ago from Gwibber […]

#8 Terence Eden on 10.07.09 at 8:30 am

Doesn’t the chief Exec of Royal Mail have an email address?

This has scuppered my project – http://voteuk.shkspr.mobi – a (non partisan) site helping people find their local polling office.

Perhaps if the Royal Mail hadn’t been driven to privatisation by the Government (and previous Governments) we wouldn’t be in this mess.

T

#9 Jon Hurst on 10.07.09 at 8:44 am

One other point to consider is the fact the addressing unit of the Royal Mail is seperated from the Operational side of the “business”. This means that poorly addressed mail is a burden to the organisation and costs them money, hence the need to keep postal rates high as they need to compensate for inefficiencies caused by people not being able to address their mail properly. Quite incredible how they justify this!!

#10 Tom Jarvis on 10.07.09 at 8:49 am

Tom,

I partly suspect that Royal Mail’s backlash was also due to the recently “misplaced” Postal Address File, which is now available across the internet. Possibly a case of “It’s our football, so we are taking it away”. What Royal Mail fail to realise, is that we all own a piece of the football, but we just entrust them to take it home at night for safe keeping.

#11 James on 10.07.09 at 8:52 am

As a software developer for both the public and the private sector I am aware that the need for postcode locating (for positioning and distance calculation) and address finding/verification is undeniable. When a client is told of the cost to perform such tasks when using the PO’s PAF system they generally go pale in the face.

I have found several companies however that are licenced to provide a more tailored/limited service using the PAF. One such that seems popular is wherby the client obtains a local database that contains all UK postcodes and addresses (updated quaterly) for under £200pa/user. I’m not advertising the service as I too would prefer the information to be free, although I would probably doubt the accuracy of said information if it was Open Sourced – I know my clients would. Not that it doesn’t have many errors in it, some on purpose for checking for people copying it.

For a lesser service which provides just the steet level details per postcode, a user can pay under £100pa. This is approaching what I would expect to pay for a service that is both updated and largely error free.

#12 The Blog › Amazing on 10.07.09 at 9:00 am

[…] Update: Tom Watson MP has also written to the Royal Mail. […]

#13 William Allbrook on 10.07.09 at 9:04 am

Perfect suggestion, it is possible to provide data both commercially and non-commercially, if only more organisations would realise this.

#14 tacitus on 10.07.09 at 9:26 am

If it generates 11m of profits a year I’d like to know how much it costs to actually keep the PAF accurate and updated (operating costs minus sales people, marketing etc)

I’ll bet it’s a fraction of the 11m – and so I can’t see why the PAF can’t be maintained at taxpayers expense and provided for free for all uses.

As ORG said – it’s simply a tax on innvation.

#15 Peter on 10.07.09 at 9:47 am

I will follow this issue with interest: thank you for raising it. And for pursuing it further.

I think a nice balance between sympathetic commercial realism and community challenge on matters of ‘public’ data.

My website has a postcode location facility to help, amongst other things, people to locate each other to facilitate reuse swaps, etc.

I think I paid for that, a long while ago.

Now many folk, especially new registrants, are complaining that their postcodes ‘don’t work’. I’m guessing boundary changes or additions.

Now as a commercial business I can see how things that take money to create need to be compensated, but I do get interested when the ways such data are gleaned are less clearly defined.

And, as stated above, when there is a clear public benefit to having access to information about themselves.

I believe the Guardian has been on this case also for quite a while: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/free-our-data

#16 davidjwbailey on 10.07.09 at 10:09 am

let me guess – the postcode file was created by public money, distributed by public money, advertised by public money (all back pre-1980) and is now being denied to the public. Oh, the shame. Oh, the irony.

OK, it is tough times, but surely a simply fee structure is enough.

BTW: do I pay an “implied licence” to use the postcode when I send a letter? Just thinking aloud…

#17 Shane McCracken on 10.07.09 at 10:12 am

Thanks for writing the letter and keeping the pressure on the Royal Mail. I hope your ministerial replacements do the same. I also hope that their Conservative and LibDem counterparts also add their support. Are John Thurso and Ken Clarke most appropriate. I’ve just emailed them.

http://www.gallomanor.com/2009/10/the-royal-mail-is-stifling-innovation-and-increasing-costs-for-this-country-through-charging-for-the-postcode-address-file-p.html

#18 mark nottingham on 10.07.09 at 10:19 am

spot on Tom. Bob and Doug, why are your minds so closed? Perhaps you should reevaluate? Tom’s typical not the exception. Haven’t you benefited from all the investment in schools, hospitals etc. Life’s not perfect but it is a hell of a lot better after 12 years of Labour.

#19 David Gale on 10.07.09 at 10:26 am

That seems to make perfect sense. So, why don’t we apply the same logic to the development of a publicly owned, national, high-speed fibre network for the public sector.

That would have a far more beneficial effect than the disastrous ‘point solutions’ focussed waste that was / is the e-Government programme, and would prevent public sector organisations from being held to ransom by the likes of BT.

#20 Alexander Ainslie on 10.07.09 at 10:40 am

It is important for public “utility” organisations to get creative with their data silos and figure out new ways to monetise. A good example can be had from the Open Source Software industry which is doing quite well and can be described in its simplest form as: giving away 90% & make money on the 10% by providing additional add-value services.

I advised GuideStar USA two years ago to adopt this type of thinking, alas to no avail. I read last week that GuideStar UK is reorganising as they are having trouble sustaining their current model. We must adapt and innovate. Preferably, disrupt the status quo while we are at it.

Regarding UK PostCodes, unfortunately I believe the Royal Mail may have already lost the battle to “lock-in” this data.

I have discovered that the entire database is freely available for public download at an interesting, if subversive site called http://www.WikiLeaks.org

Extract:
“UK government database of all 1,841,177 post codes together with precise geographic coordinates and other information, 8 Jul 2009” See link: http://bit.ly/42jVrT

WikiLeaks.org also has: “New Digital Master Map for Great Britian: ” See link: http://bit.ly/1akwO9

Now I am sure that the Royal Mail can spend a lot of money trying to sue WikiLeaks.org for publishing this data. However, in my educated opinion, the probability of obtaining judgement is quite low given the past experience others have had trying this route. WikiLeaks.org seems quite bullet proof.

What I would prefer to see is the Royal Mail estimate what their budget for such legal action(s) would be and then ring fence this money for innovating ways to profit from the data by developing new services that are fit for purpose in this fast evolving world.

On the positive front, I believe there are some interesting ways that the Royal Mail can profitable champion the process of opening up their data in a formal way.

I shall be happy to speak with decision makers from the Royal Mail and share these suggestions. Oh, and by the way, in the spirit of Open Source, the price for 90% of my advice is free!

On a serious note, one of my holdings has acquired a 15 year old UK intellectual property company that has had revenue generation methodologies in continuous play for over 2500 registered charities for twelve plus years. We therefore have deep domain expertise which we are happy to make available to the Royal Mail.

The Royal Mail is welcome to DM (Direct Message) me via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aainslie – alternatively, please get in touch with me via the talented Martha Lane Fox at http://www.twitter.com/Marthalanefox – I follow her and discovered this post via her stream.

#21 GoodGNUs » Blog Archive » Free Our Data: UK postcodes on 10.07.09 at 10:46 am

[…] at good citizens. Indeed, so outrageous is Royal Mail’s behaviour that even a Labour government minister is taking them to task for it, then again Tom Watson is an honourable exception amongst politicians, given his understanding of […]

#22 Will Abson on 10.07.09 at 11:04 am

Good letter.

I’d be interested in a break-down of the £11m figure quoted and how much of this is derived from revenues from direct mail companies.

It seems to me that Royal Mail is abusing it’s stewardship of this data, by effectively withholding it from the citizen-focussed sites you mention it, while being happy to sell it on to commercial organisations for purposes which may be environmentally damaging and have little or no social worth.

The “entrepreneurs” you mention are being short sighted in the extreme, fixated as they are on short-term revenue gains at the expense of causing long-term damage to Britain’s knowledge economy. This data must be opened up for non-commercial use.

#23 Duncn Stockdill on 10.07.09 at 11:19 am

Thanks for pursuing this Tom. A post code is much more than a delivery address. It defines the places we live, work and visit. Looking forward, it’s unsustainable for the Royal Mail to hold a monopoly on this data, particularly with their outdated access and charging structures.

The tech startup’s that Royal Mail are holding back are innovators and will likely create solutions that bypass Royal Mail. However, it would seem more sensible for the Royal Mail to open up and even allow collaboration on this data. I’m sure they and other companies could benefit from millions of users adding to and enhancing the data.

#24 james on 10.07.09 at 12:13 pm

It would make better sense if the government were to come to a financial arrangement with the post office and buy back the data set. There are obvious reasons for this and in hindsight all can say that the postcode issue was not presciently noticed when the postal codes become privately owned. They are part of a locational commons that due to their pervasive use, should be made reusable for free. Can’t someone in government negotiate a deal?

#25 Milo Yiannopoulos on 10.07.09 at 12:59 pm

I agree with the first commenter. I’ve seen a lot of good sense from you, which is totally incongruent with membership of your party.

#26 Kelvin J on 10.07.09 at 1:36 pm

Spot on @tacitus. The .gov should pay the Royal Mail to keep it up-to-date and make available for free online.

#27 David Corking on 10.07.09 at 1:50 pm

Royal Mail makes less than 20p per citizen per year from these licenses. As far as I understand, Royal Mail didn’t create the data either: local councils collect the data at taxpayers’ expense.

Instead, Royal Mail should stimulate small businesses and non-profits by giving them access to this.

#28 David Corking (dcorking) 's status on Wednesday, 07-Oct-09 13:11:38 UTC - Identi.ca on 10.07.09 at 2:11 pm

[…] http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/2009/10/postcodes-adam-crozier-letter/ a few seconds ago from xmpp […]

#29 Jon on 10.07.09 at 3:25 pm

It is a crazy situation. We bought a house in 2006 which had a brand new postcode. At the time our choice of buildings insurance (essential for arranging the mortgage) was significantly restricted as several companies simply couldn’t process our request as our postcode as it wasn’t on their system.

Even now, 3 years later, a significant number of companies still don’t have our postcode. The ridiculous cost of PAF severely restricts smaller organisations keeping their systems up-to-date.

#30 Pezholio » Blog Archive » Royal Fail part 2: Let’s do something! on 10.07.09 at 5:15 pm

[…] MP, Mike O’Brien (via Writetothem.com) to try and get some attention to the cause (although Tom Watson will be raising it as an issue in parliament next week – good job […]

#31 chris price on 10.07.09 at 8:41 pm

So the Royal Mail derives 11 million quid a year from holding a database which it then flogs (largely) to direct marketing companies so they can presumably send us junk mail. Because it wants to keep this data to itself it then stamps down (ha) on any company that tries to use the data in a socially useful, 21st century way. Surely if it provided this data, which should belong to us anyway, via the web for free this situation wouldn’t arise. But then what do you expect from an organisation that seems to be permanently stuck in the 19th century as anyone who ever has the misfortune to visit a Post Office can testify.

#32 Scott K on 10.08.09 at 12:37 am

“If it generates 11m of profits a year I’d like to know how much it costs to actually keep the PAF accurate and updated (operating costs minus sales people, marketing etc) ”

In Postcomm’s review of the PAF (postcode address file) management, there’s a table with the details for 2005/6 – page 89 of:
http://www.psc.gov.uk/postcomm/live/policy-and-consultations/consultations/postcode-address-file–management-of-information/PAF_decision_doc.pdf

This shows income of £18.4M, expenditure of £16.8M, profit of £1.6M.

Postcomm 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”.

#33 Greg on 10.08.09 at 10:49 am

All the discussions about the “profits” made on selling postcodes are a diversion. The postcode system is necessary for the efficient running of the postal service. If we didn’t have it, the post office’s distribution costs would be massively higher.
Given that they therefore need to create and maintain a set of postcodes, the costs of simply publishing the data on the internet would be negligible.
Once they decide to charge for it, the costs of distribuition are non-negligible. They have significant legal fees, sales costs (yes, the Post Office employs salespeople to persuade organisations to buy the data). technical costs in making each dataset traceable to prevent leaks, etc.
Put simply; they only have high costs because they want to charge for the data. Instead, they should just open up the data and leave it to developers, companies, cooperatives, etc to value add, etc.
Having two licenses – a for-profit and a not-for-profit is still extremely inefficient. First, you gain all the costs described above in enforcing a charging mechanism. Second, where do you draw the line? DO charities pay? Small businesses? Do small pay the same as big? What about startups? The dual-license scheme would truly stifle innovation exactly where we need it most.

#34 Heather Brooke on 10.08.09 at 11:38 am

I think this is great news as I’m just in the midst of writing a chapter all about public bodies pricing the public out of public information. You couldn’t wish for a better villain to exemplify this nefarious practice than Royal Mail.
My new book is ‘The Silent State: How Secrecy & Misinformation is Destroying our Democracy’ out in April 2010. A must read for Adam Crozier methinks.

#35 CycleStreets » Blog on 10.08.09 at 12:20 pm

[…] also gaining parliamentary attention: Tom Watson MP has written a great letter to Royal Mail on the issue of postcode database availability following an earlier blog post he made. (NB […]

#36 Anthony Eskinazi on 10.08.09 at 12:26 pm

And they wonder why the US is so far ahead of us with regards to technology innovation and location based services.

I can think of half a dozen or so UK based start-ups that would take off if they had access to all the postcode data and boundaries.

Tom, please let us know if you hear back From Mr Crozier.

#37 Richard Wilson on 10.08.09 at 12:40 pm

The royalmail’s monoploy on something that is inherently public information has always driven me mad. Their latest behaviour has just proved how out of touch they are. They have just alienated a whole new set of people.
Well done to Tom for highlighting the issue.
Let’s hope for some action!

#38 Graeme Leggett on 10.08.09 at 12:45 pm

ErnestMarples (named after a politician who sought to avoid paying his fair dues of tax) appear to have sought to evade the licencing of the Post Office database and seem to be trying to hide behind some sort of public outrage of the fact that the PO tries to subsidize its own operations rather than just consuming public money.

I say appear because they haven’t actually said that they didn’t use the PO database. If they didn’t, then all they have to do is show it – problem sorted.
If they did, well they got caught out and should have realised that this was a likely downside to their business plan (they are a registered business after all) .

On the positive side, this kerfuffle does show that perhaps there is a mood for a form of low-cost/free licencing of the Postcode database for deserving cases. At the moment any individual is limited to 15 postcode searches a day for free.

#39 Richard Wilson on 10.08.09 at 1:55 pm

Has anyone noticed how moronic this situation is…
A correctly formatted address helps the Royalmail deliver the letter. The royalmail charges for the facility to lookup a correctly formatted address.

I’m not sure if that’s a genius business plan or utter stupidity!

#40 Freesteel on 10.08.09 at 7:05 pm

[…] We could wait around and let them produce their own list, which will miss important data sets like the Postcode Address File (which I notice a former government minister has now written to the relevant authorities about)… […]

#41 Links 09/10/2009: Hulu Desktop for GNU/Linux, Mårten Mickos Nods on Oracle | Boycott Novell on 10.09.09 at 1:28 pm

[…] Postcodes: Adam Crozier letter The heavy handed approach by the Royal Mail to a growing sector of not-for-profit citizen focused websites is not new but still deeply regrettable. As a minister, I initiated a conversation that I hoped would lead to Royal Mail taking a more flexible approach with the web community who seek to use geo-spatial co-ordinates to develop new and innovative services that help the public in their daily lives. […]

#42 royal mail worker on 10.10.09 at 1:01 pm

now you see what we are dealing with as royal mail workers, Adam Crozier should be removed from is post
he is grinding royal mail into the ground to privetise it , we have got later deliverys which we did not want
we fear for are jobs , we need the public suport because royal mail will no longer be.

#43 Steve E on 10.11.09 at 9:10 pm

Since when has the Royal Mail owned my house? When I bought it it had a Post Code allocated to it. Does this mean that everytime I give the Post Code to someone (to be used as an example on their SatNav) I ought to pay the Royal Mail a royalty?
Come on Royal Mail, get real. All I want is public information about things happening in my area.

#44 Anthony Cartmell on 10.12.09 at 5:16 pm

My suggestion is that we continue to build the open postcode database at http://www.npemap.org.uk/ with the assistance of postmen, who, presumably, know where each postcode is on the map. They would provide this information in a personal capacity, of course, for the areas they know about (they, like anyone, can read the postcodes from the addressed envelopes they are delivering).

The alternative, crowd-sourcing people to rummage in bins to find postcodes, would be much messier…

#45 Mike Saunt on 10.14.09 at 10:17 am

All,

It is strange that in these times it is better to go to the USA providers to get UK information that to providers in the UK.

I am talking here about Yahoo and their GeoPlanet set of web services. All anyone needs to is sign up to get a developer ID and then you have access to the postcodes for FREE without limit on use – strange but true and really shows how providers such as the Royal Mail (also think Ordnance Survey) aren’t quite up to speed with the Internet age.

The following link will allow this

Have you tried the FREE to USE GeoPlanet from YAHOO? This has postcodes that can be used

http://developer.yahoo.com/geo/placemaker/index.html

This will solve the problems for all your clients / websites

Thanks and I hope this helps
Mike

#46 Philip Hunt on 10.17.09 at 5:35 pm

What can I say other than “I agree”? Tom, your talents are wasted in the Labour Party, come and join the Pirate Party instead.

#47 Josephine on 10.20.09 at 3:02 pm

I am the partner of a Royal Mail worker in a Bristol Depot, and i’m sure I am speaking on behalf of all those with striking parners.
It would be so easy to get the postmen back out on their rounds, give them the pay rise they deserve, it makes me so angry that while top bosses get huge salaries and bonuses, backed up by safe pensions, my partner who works hard at grass roots, who, ironically pays your lousy bonuses, gets nothing, ages ago promises of better pay, and conditions were going to be enforced, now you have gone back on your words and wonder why they are striking.
Your money is safe, but because of your selfishness my partner has had to strike, in the meantime Royal Mail are losing customers, and they wonder why.
How can you live with your consciences knowing all you top bosses are safe, you can afford all lifes luxuries, at my partners expense, yet they are all struggling, you have not only stopped payrises, but they are working longer hours for a pittance, in all winds and weathers, and even told to walk faster.
You should be ashamed of the way you treat them.
Not only that your bonuses are tax-free and ludicrously high, my partner, who has already paid tax, is then taxed on a pitifull £200 bonus, how can you justify that? is beyond me.
Your postmen are worth their weight in gold, but to you they are dispensable, you are all greedy, self loving and selfish.
The only way to get them back out on their rounds, is better pay and conditions, tax free bonuses over a thousand, and reduce your own to pay them, since they need it more than you, it is as ELEMETARY as that.

Josephine Lewis

#48 bill finnegan on 10.21.09 at 10:35 am

In the US online zipcode lookup is provided by USPS – http://zip4.usps.com/zip4/
The same service should be provided in UK by Post Office – surely its in their interest that customers use the correct code

#49 Lisa on 10.23.09 at 9:31 am

Given this file was created by public money it should be publically accessible. It seems to all be part of the Royal Mail’s privatisation by the back door courtesy of Mr Mandelson (a very powerful minister in government who hasn’t been elected – but hey that’s another story). Please keep the pressure on, Tom.

#50 D Read on 10.30.09 at 5:09 pm

Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey have it all sewn up. Even local councils can’t tell you where their boundaries are with other councils without you agreeing to a restrictive license!

#51 Lynne Featherstone MP: I support the Free Our Data campaign (Exclusive) | The Wardman Wire on 11.24.09 at 4:11 pm

[…] Tom Watson the Labour MP has taken up this cause. […]

#52 R Phillips on 12.07.09 at 10:37 am

i HAVE LOOKED FOR POSTCODES ON THE COMPUTER AND THE INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE AND THE HOUSE HAS BEEEN THERE FOR YEARS WITH THE TOWN BUT IT ALSO SAYS Cambridge does not exist eather

#53 Andrew Climo on 04.03.13 at 9:30 am

The issue here is one of ownership.

The post code system does not ‘belong’ to the Post Office: It never did. It was developed by a Crown agency and should be under Crown Copyright.

The Post Office have ‘appropriated’ this data and they should be charged for re-badging it – not the other way around.

In Cornwall we continually have problems with the Post Office refusing to deliver mail that is addressed in the Cornish language, even when there is a valid bi-lingual address and it is properly post coded.

In short, they have assumed powers that they don’t have under statute and have appropriated data they cannot legitimately ‘own’.

Note: The situation is worse than it may appear in fact. By stopping others publishing the post code system (and jealously guarding access to even the list of post towns), they also are appropriating the two other coordinate systems needed by anyone doing mapping (Northings-Eastings and OS Grid References).

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