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….!