Tom Watson writes … on the Royal Mail and postcodes

It’s not often that The Voice invites MPs from other parties to do a guest post, but in this case we’ve asked Tom Watson as the postcode issue is one he took a close interest in as a minister and it is an issue that cuts across parties.

The recent decision by Royal Mail to close down the Ernestmarples.com web site shows us how our public institutions are woefully unprepared to seize the new opportunities created by the internet.

Ermenmarples.com is a web site that enables other sites to provide postcode driven, citizen focused web services on a not-for-profit basis. Sites like planningalerts.com, thestraightchoice.com and jobcentreproplus.com make our information rich lives easier.

They’re also good for the economy. Harry Metcalfe, one half of the talented duo that created the site reckons that jobcentreproplus.com has enabled over 400000 job searches in the last six months.

In a questionable legal move, Royal Mail wielded a big stick, claiming misuse of the postcode file on copyright grounds. The good people of Ernestmarples are ill equipped to fight back and risk losing everything in a damaging legal battle, and have therefore complied with the demand to close down their site. What a great shame.

Royal Mail claim that Ernestmarples has caused them a loss – despite the sites mentioned being free to use and not generating a penny in revenues for their owners.

There is an economic truth that had the postcode address file been made available for free re-use, the financial benefits for the country would be considerably more than the income Royal Mail make from licensing the file.

The rigidity of Royal Mail is not unique. Ordnance Survey almost go out of their way to prohibit innovation in digital mapping with their cumbersome licence regime.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Government and, more importantly the civil service, can show a much more enlightened view towards licensing non-personal data. Set data free and clever people can do unimaginably good things with it. The recent showusabetterway.com competition to design public services using non-personal data showed an array of ideas for new services that ran into the hundreds.

I like to think that the liberation of public information in re-usable formats using open standards is an agenda shared between progressives in both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. At the heart of the debate is a profound belief that citizens should have a greater say over the public services they use.

Today, all the good house hunting sites on the web give you not only a good description of the house but a mash up it’s location on a map with the ofsted report to nearby schools.

This kind of thinking can apply to many more government services. And it doesn’t have to be the responsibility of government to make all the sites. Free up data and entrepreneurs will use it in socially useful ways.

This is one area where the political parties can work together to break the cultural inertia to web innovation that exists in too many parts of the public sector. I’d welcome your ideas about how we can do that.

Tom Watson is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East

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15 Comments

  • How’s your personal parcel deilivery service to Scotland going?

    You obviously don’t have much confidence in the Royal Mail if you have to drive from West Bromwich to Kirkcaldy to deliver a parcel.

  • sanbikinoraion 9th Oct '09 - 2:46pm

    I like to think that the liberation of public information in re-usable formats using open standards…

    Is that what they’re calling losing laptops on trains these days? :)

  • sanbikinoraion 9th Oct '09 - 2:48pm

    Seriously, though, aren’t there enough interested people in the UK with GPS devices to crowdsource an open-source postcode list? (Or at least an approximation to such)

  • Andrew Gillard 9th Oct '09 - 4:14pm

    There is already an effort to create an open source UK postcode database at http://www.freethepostcode.org/, exactly as you describe, sanbikinoraion. Now we just need more entries in it :)

  • sanbikinoraion 9th Oct '09 - 4:37pm

    Come on, Tom, there’s plenty of irony in a former government minister whose government has overseen the largest accidental losses of personal data now campaigning for a public sector body to give away data on purpose :)

    A neutral, less self-interested body is likely to take a more pragmatic approach to licensing.

    Is there any reason whatsoever why postcode data shouldn’t simply be freely available to anyone who wants it? It seems like its availability allows a large amount of innovation to take place, and attempting to restrict access will only result in effort being directed into creating a replacement (free) service, instead of actually doing interesting and useful stuff with the data. Sounds like exactly the sort of thing that should be done by the UK government and made available to its citizens.

  • A crowd-sourced collaborative project to collate UK postcodes already exists and has been running for quite a while, namely http://www.freethepostcode.org/ that provides an open source dataset & API.

    If you don’t have a GPS simply use http://www.getlatlon.com/ utility to obtain the geo-spatial co-ords and submit the results :)

    I have a project in mind to benefit residents within the wards & postal districts of Hull. Despite a FOI request for boundary line co-ords, I have been halted as the information is copyrighted! Great once again, the brick wall hits me in my head hindering me from potential employment.

    Data produced, obtained or funded from the public purse should be open to the public. Our money, our data, no questions or excuses.

    Open data! When do we want it? NOW!

    Sean

  • “Can we suspend the usual until nearer polling day?”

    Sorry Tom. If you burn your bridges you can’t complain when you have to swim back across the river.

    If you were actually bothered about this you could have done something when you were a minister and taking a “close interest”

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