Postcode campaign gears up to save popular web services

A range of popular websites, providing useful services such as information on local job vacancies and planning applications, have been closed down following the Royal Mail’s decision to crack down on the use they made of its postcode address database.

As Alex blogged previously:

With postcodes so increasingly important to national life, it’s ridiculous that they are not public data that is, as a minimum, free to use for non-profit organisations.

It’s that non-profit issue that is key. I’ve no problem with the Royal Mail making money from people who want postcode data so that they in turn can make money from using it. Indeed, if the Royal Mail makes a profit from that market and so keeps down the price of stamps, I’m actually quite pleased.

But the Royal Mail wanting to make money out of non-profits is another case, especially when it results in such services closing and in fact the result is to drive up costs elsewhere in the public sector. Charles Arthur reports in The Guardian:

Some simple calculations show that in fact everyone else, including the government that owns Royal Mail, and perhaps even Royal Mail itself, would benefit from the data being free…

Job Centre Pro Plus had 437,354 searches for jobs since March this year, according to Metcalfe. If only 0.001% of those led to someone finding employment and saved £100 in benefit payments, then ernestmarples.com has, overall, saved the government money.

And Pope points out that professional property developers used PlanningAlerts “since it allows them to look for opportunities/competition”.

If that led them to work worth more than £20,000, the 25% corporate tax rate means the government has received more in tax revenue than it has lost from Pope and Metcalfe’s non-licensing of PostZon. Pope also notes that “few councils were using the PlanningAlerts API [programming interface] since it was easier and cheaper than paying external consultants to hack they achingly bad internal systems.” He points to Lincoln City Council, where PlanningAlerts was used to generate the RSS feed and map for planning. Would it cost more than £4,000 for Lincoln to build a system to do the job PlanningAlerts enabled?

So overall the public sector is out of pocket, we’re missing out on useful services and the Royal Mail postcode data gets less use. PlanningAlerts is a particular loss because, as I wrote previously, it’s a great service.

Joined up government? Er, no.

And if you agree this is barmy? Go sign this petition on the No.10 website (and please share this story with other people).

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6 Comments

  • Even if you think (as I do) that postcode data should be freely available, it doesn’t mean that Ernest Marples had any right to violate the copyright on the Postal Address File and make it accessible to third parties.

    It does take time and effort to build up a database of postcode information, and there are two extremes of doing it – an organisation like Royal Mail paying staff to do it and charging for the results, or community collaboration as seen on Free the Postcode, New Public Edition Maps and Open Postcode Database. I’d advise anybody interested in this issue to support those projects – as well as providing freely-licensed data, they also provide more convenient formats and interfaces than the PAF (which is a bugger to work with), which will be useful even if someday the Royal Mail’s data becomes free too.

  • Sorry Charles, but you haven’t read either. I agree with your arguments that postcode data should be under a more free license (at least for non-profits). I just don’t think that Ernest Marples had any right to violate the license of the current copyright.

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