A Wild Alternative to Postcode Data


6 October 2009 by Ian Davis

So the Royal Mail are targeting threats to their monopoly on the postcode data. The blogosphere is outraged naturally, and most arguments take the stance that this is data created by a publicly owned body and that it should belong to the nation. Morally that may be true, but politically it is a very different story. Successive governments have encouraged organisations like the Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey and British Library to recoup a certain level of their costs through data licensing. We now know that stance is untenable in the face of the disruption to costs of production and distribution brought by the Web, but dinosaurs take a long time to adapt.

There have been several attempts to circumvent the Royal Mail’s monopoly by crowdsourcing the data. FreeThePostcode is one approach which has geocoded about 8000 postcodes out of 1.6M. This is after several years effort, so its not clear that this is a viable approach. I’m not even sure that the Post Office would have no claim on it even if the data is completely crowdsourced. Postcodes aren’t natural facts. They are artificial, created and assigned by the Post Office. I don’t know if that makes a real difference, but there’s enough doubt in my mind to make me worry about it.

I wonder if trying to replicate the database is simply the wrong approach. Consider OpenStreetMap: they didn’t set out to replicate the Ordnance Survey’s maps, they set out to build an entirely new map, one free from IPR claims. Their map can be used like the Ordnance Survey maps but they are entirely independent of them.

Here’s my wild idea: create a new postcode system from scratch.

It could be very simple and because it would be open data from the start it could have a real connection to the web from day one. Maybe it could be based on some algorithmic coding of data from OpenStreetMap and we could make it as granular as we like, even down to the exact house. Open data would allow hundreds of derived services to exist that are stifled by the grasp of the Post Office today.

Whenever you write a postcode on a letter add the open postcode on the next line – no harm done to anyone and a little bit more value added. If the open postcode was a number then they could be printed as barcodes on letters – a simple innovation that the closed attitude of the Post Office has prevented from happening.

A wild idea….!

12 thoughts on “A Wild Alternative to Postcode Data

  1. Tweets that mention Internet Alchemy ยป A Wild Alternative to Postcode Data -- says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julian Cheal. Julian Cheal said: RT @iand New blog post: A Wild Alternative to Postcode Data – @steph you might like this. […]

  2. mauvedeity says:

    This is an interesting idea, but I think it stumbles at the ‘first telephone’ problem. But then again, so did the telephone. I’m all for it, especially as most of the current uses of postcodes are computer software, and that’s relatively easy to change.It’d be nice if whatever we come up with fixed the problems with the existing postcode system. Here’s hoping.(Oh, and we can do alphanumeric bar codes, by the way, which the Post Office already do. So it doesn’t *need* to be a number.)

  3. chris Jangelov says:

    First thought in mind: Why not just use geo coordinates? Depending on the numbed of digits we can be more or less exact. It is a universal system and more exact than most. And after all – a number is just a number.

  4. Stefano Bertolo says:

    Choderlos de Laclos, author of Dangerous Liaisons proposed such a scheme in 1779

  5. Valentin says:

    yea, for what exactly do we need postcodes anyway? It seems they are just a crutches to aid in the routing of mail – with modern IT you can probably do it just as well without them. Today they may only aid in parsing unreadable stuff by adding redundant data – but for that lat/long would work just as well. If postcodes really are still important, then I expect this to be as names for geographic areas in order to aid data integration.

  6. PaulG says:

    How about, the readable address:12 Bridge StreetThe geocode Lat/Lng51.288, -0.6123as a (free) url? a tiny URL, maybe to 2 decimal places?pla.ce/12BS51_28-0_61… and then use as a printable QR code, rdf etcRetrieve area and town info via the lat, lng – if you need to retrieve postcode(s) in quantity then you cough up some dosh for PAF data access.i.e. built upon a SPARQL endpoint for uk addresses.

  7. Christopher Osborne says:

    Mostly in reply to the comments, not the post:Sorry folks, needs to be human readable too. Remembering N16 6LD is much easier than 51.568, -0.067. [see that negative sign in there? That ain’t particularly user friendly]Also, postcodes are a hierarchy of spatial info: N – north london, n16 – a chunk of Hackney and Stoke Newington, N16 6 – a small chunk of North East Stoke Newington, n16 6ld – the corner of the street I used to live on. Actually very useful when aggregating data, and when looking at new addresses; if someone tells me they live in N1, I know they live in an area of North London around Islington.I’m totally for an open postcode, but the idea of replacing it with a lat/lng is ridiculous. Japanese postcodes work pretty well (free of copyright too): 745-00457 – prefecture, 745 – city, 745-0845 – street.

  8. PaulG says:

    Haha, like shooting fish in barrels do we? Lighten up, the posting title is “wild alternative” so I just added another layer in the hope someone else might choose to build upon it, not ridicule.Did I say remember the long one?”… and a tiny URL, maybe to 2 decimal places?pla.ce/12BS51_28-0_61″Perhaps if we could have a go at listing the purpose and value of the present postcode system – we would have a better idea of what would be an improved and more useful version for the 21st century.So, to add to the Pythonesque “ridiculousness” of the situation:Purpose: To describe the most efficient postal workers walking route, for the amount of average letters and bills he or she can hold in his left hand till he or she returns to his or her parked bike or trolley to fill up his/her left hand again.Purpose: to describe the centre point of the polygon which encompasses those properties, which could be a pond.

  9. Simon Gibbs says:

    Purpose: a system of mnemonics which uniquely identify places, such as streets, parts of streets and important buildings where people live or work.

  10. PaulG says:

    Purpose: to be machine readable

  11. Christopher Osborne says:

    @paulgSorry, your comment wasn’t up there while I was writing mine. You have something useful there, but I still believe something human readable is better. One of the key values of the current postcode system is that everyone can remember them.

  12. says:

    Really enjoyed this! Well done!

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