Saturday, July 4, 2020
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The Address Mess

THERE IS GROWING CONCERN in the local authorities in England and Wales over the recent papers and responses coming from central government surrounding national addressing. The Shakespeare Review of Public Sector Information and the government’s response suggest that there is a widespread misunderstanding of the national addressing process that is adversely affecting government policy and decision-making.

A raw deal? Shakespeare and the response focused on Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey GB as the public sector authorities “dealing with” addresses. This completely discounts or minimises the fundamental role of local authorities, which are the source of, and have the statutory responsibility for the creation of, street addresses as well as being the key suppliers of address change intelligence. For the record, the process in England and Wales is as follows:

1) Local authorities create new property numbers and street names under statute. No other body has the authority to do this. The addresses are added to an official Street Naming and Numbering register and to the local land and property gazetteer from whence it is passed to GeoPlace for compilation into the national address gazetteer. 2) Local authorities also pass these addresses (under no obligation) to Royal Mail, which adds

postcodes and updates their Postcode Address File (PAF) with the whole address. Royal Mail, unilaterally decided a few years ago to pay local authorities £1 per address if it is deemed (by RM) not to have been received from another source. 3) Royal Mail sells PAF under licence, including licencing local authorities to use the address data that they had created in the first place. This licence is not a one-off fee; it is a perpetual licence for any use of the address at any time. 4) The licence therefore limits not only the use of new addresses but also any of the extensive address change intelligence collected by local authorities because they include the postcode with the address. If it’s in PAF, Royal Mail claim intellectual property rights. 5) Subsequently, local authorities cannot freely use any addresses without licence; they have to count the searches for an address on their websites; they pay extra for addresses outside their geographic area; and they pay extra for any “other versions” of PAF they may use internally.

It is not surprising that local authorities feel that they get a raw deal; yet they still believe that, because Royal Mail is a public body, the whole process works for the greater public good. However, things may be due to change quite significantly.

Cash cow the recent decision to privatise Royal Mail (with its rights to PAF) is causing growing concerns amongst local authorities over the use of address data. If PAF is privatized, then authorities will be giving the addresses they create under statute to a private company, for that company, which will have a monopoly and will make a profit. This immediately raises concerns over whether a public body should be providing data exclusively to only one private company. It also raises the issue of whether this is the most beneficial use of public sector information. Central government is also using these addresses to make a number of efficiency savings: the Electoral Register; emergency services; the NHS; and the Department of Work and Pensions among others. All of these are bound by the same licensing restrictions imposed by the soon to be privatised Royal Mail. The government response to Shakespeare states that “rich and detailed datasets are held by local authorities and arm’s length bodies – some of which are very useful to businesses and individuals alike”. So why exclude the core national address data created and maintained by local government that is used by every individual, every company and every sector of both central and local government? Not only will it not be free, it will still impose licence restrictions on the public sector using its own address data, and all future rights to its use will be vested in a private company. The first sentence in the government response to Shakespeare is “Data is changing the way we live and work. Open Data is a critical part of this story of transformation, with British businesses poised to benefit from the economic advantages it will bring.” The decision to privatise PAF will turn these into hollow words.

In a brief consultation with Gazetteer Custodian Chairs for each of the 13 regions in England and Wales, the overriding opinion was that if PAF is privatised, then local authorities would look at charging a higher fee for their address information, more in line with the profits gained from its sale, and would consider providing this information to other private companies that requested it. Local authorities increase the cost to Royal Mail; Royal Mail increase the cost to local authorities and a vicious cycle is created. If we are not careful, what started as a comprehensive national address database created and maintained for minimum cost for national use and benefit suddenly becomes a cash cow handed to a private company, which will have total control over the nation’s use of addresses.

An obvious solution So what’s the answer to this address mess? Well, it’s obvious to anyone who has looked at efficiency savings in systems and processes. Capture once: use many times; master data management; lean management; they all point towards a single process with a single master dataset. It’s happened already with GeoPlace. Local authorities and Ordnance Survey provide complementary components and services to create the national address gazetteer. The sensible, nay obvious, extension is for PAF to be brought on board and for postcodes to be added to the consolidated national address gazetteer process. And here’s one I prepared earlier (see diagram, left). Currently, all new addresses and a lot of address change intelligence come through local authorities carrying out their statutory duties or meeting their own requirements for accurate current addresses for service delivery. They are already set up to create, manage, validate, check and update new and existing address records. This process could easily incorporate postcode creation to ensure unique addresses.

Alternatively, postcode creation could be at the national level with a check at local level. Royal Mail, and other mail carriers, could pass their intelligence to local authorities or to GeoPlace. There is then no need for a separate postcode address file as the official address (plus “non-official” names and the postcode) should be the only address required. There is potential to have a postal address that is different to the official address in exceptional circumstances. New or changed “candidate” addresses would be provided at local or national level for checking and validation. This procedure would be used by emergency services, utilities, other government departments, etc and would include all stakeholders. The more address intelligence enters the system, the more accurate the data will be. The national address database, including inputs from Ordnance Survey such as TOIDs, co-ordinates and objects without postal addresses, can then be output as free open data or with a free basic service and with premium services, as currently offered by GeoBase (for Canada) and Ordnance Survey.

Governance is also required for dealing with the standards, agreements, convention documents, best practice, quality and improvement etc, which must maintain the link between local and national database maintenance. This will consolidate current processes, remove duplication of address creation and maintenance and provide a single national address gazetteer with validation, quality routines and governance. All stakeholders could be involved in passing address change intelligence into the system and different flavours of address can be provided to all who require it – whether it’s a postal address for delivery, a location address for emergency services and sat navs etc, a unique address reference to link information and services or simply a core dataset to spatially enable and analyse information.

Step towards the ideal Is this a Utopian ideal? I don’t think so. The maintenance and management processes are already in place and with some slight tweaking, the infrastructure could be too. We are so close to an ideal National Address Gazetteer yet we are also so close to the ideal being shattered with the sale of PAF and the already tangled web of licensing and IPR claims. Addresses and a national address database are such an important pre-requisite for economic growth and technological development that nations worldwide are striving to develop their own gazetteers.

Ghana, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates are currently embarking on comprehensive street addressing programmes and the US Federal Geographic Data Committee has commissioned a report based on the fact that ‘Numerous stakeholders have identified a critical need for a National Address Database’. And if you still think a privatised national address is a good idea, just ask the Dutch how much money they have spent in trying to return their postcode address file to the public domain. The Universal Postal Union have identified the provision of a national address infrastructure as the basis of a society’s welfare and as an essential “public good”. We are only one small step away from the ideal for which the rest of the world is striving. So, let’s all collaborate on providing the best national gazetteer in a fair and equitable partnership for the good of both public and private sector alike – not to mention the average taxpayer!

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