LibDem tech chief backs free postcodes

Delighted to see LibDem MP (and client) Lynne Featherstone write the following:

As Chair of the Liberal Democrat Technology Board – and an MP who believes that the internet should be used to strengthen democracy – I want to declare my support for the Free our Data campaign. We need postcodes to be owned by the public – not sold to the public. Postcodes are the basic pre-requisite for allowing services to be developed that support democratic accountability. This is an issue that cuts across parties […] and so it should, because it’s about how the data about us can help us all.

I wonder where she got the idea originally? Can’t have been this, surely.

Ordnance Survey data 'will' be freed

It’s quite amusing to compare and contrast the announcements from DCLG and Ordnance Survey today, regarding boundaries, postcode areas and mid scale mapping information. DCLG’s press release proudly declares:

The Prime Minister and Communities Secretary John Denham will today announce that the public will have more access to Ordnance Survey maps from next year, as part of a Government drive to open up data to improve transparency. Speaking at a seminar on Smarter Government in Downing Street … the Prime Minister will set out how the Government and Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping agency, will open up its data relating to electoral and local authority boundaries, postcode areas and mid scale mapping information. The Government will consult on proposals to make data from Ordnance Survey freely available so it can be used for digital innovation and to support democratic accountability.

See that? Lots of definite statements, of how they will do this, will do that. Well, hold your horses. Ordnance Survey’s rather brief press release is slightly more defensive, and markedly less excitable:

The Prime Minister has today announced that the public and others will have greater access to a range [of?] Ordnance Survey data from next year, as part of a Government drive to open up data to improve efficiency and transparency. The detail of this is still being worked through and a formal consultation period will begin in December to look at how these changes will be implemented.

So whilst DCLG see it as a chance to crowdsource some cool stuff, OS frame it purely in fairly boring accountant-bureaucrat terms. Hmm.
Of course it’s welcome news, but there’s a long, long way to go yet – and not much time to do it. With a general election on the horizon, boundaries absolutely must be freed – as quickly as possible, and in formats which will be most useful to the digital innovators. (Basically, that means dead easy integration with Google Maps.)
Oh, and let’s not get carried away about ‘postcode areas’. They aren’t Ordnance Survey’s to free, are they?

Commons motion to free postcodes

I’ve just come across an Early Day Motion at the House of Commons, dated 1 July 2008, by Labour’s Khalid Mahmood:

That this House believes that the Register of Postcodes is a national public asset and should be freely available.

Short and sweet. And attracting healthy numbers of (mostly Labour) MPs willing to add their names in support. It’s one of the most popular EDMs tabled in the last couple of weeks.
Now, let’s bear in mind that EDMs are widely derided as little more than parliamentary graffiti. But given the Power Of Information taskforce‘s activity in this general area, the sustained traffic to my own recent blog posting on the subject, and favourable follow-ups from both e-gov minister Tom Watson and the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaignis this suddenly going somewhere?
UPDATE: OK, strange things happening now. ‘The Status of this EDM is Suspended,’ according to the Parliament site. Anyone?
UPDATE 2: Now showing as ‘withdrawn’. Curiouser and curiouser.

The power of postcodes

LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone has an idea. She tells Liberal Conspiracy the one IT project she’d like to see from government would be (if I can paraphrase) an email-bouncing facility, where you’d send an email (for example) to yourpostcode@police.gov.uk (sic), and it would automatically get forwarded to the relevant coppers. She rightly notes that sites such as WriteToThem go most of the way towards this concept… and indeed, it’s surely the sort of project that’s right up MySociety‘s street (sorry).
Personally, I think Lynne has the right idea, but takes it to the wrong conclusion. As IT projects go, what she describes is relatively straightforward. The headaches would come in terms of (a) requiring the email recipients to keep it all up to date; and (b) the extra work generated. Reading and writing emails takes time. It would be much more efficient, in most cases, to encourage self-service via the web.
The bit Lynne gets 100% right is the power of the postcode. The UK has one of the planet’s more granular postcoding systems, with each of the nation’s 1.8m individual postcodes covering on average 15 houses. In IT terms, that’s a remarkably accurate piece of geocoding data – which virtually every adult in the country knows off by heart. You can stop people in the street, ask them, and they know it. That’s a truly awesome asset. (Which is why Ireland is now adopting a similar system, despite Post Office claims they don’t need it.)
But ask any statistician about postcodes, and they’ll glare at you – citing two problems.

  • Postcode boundaries were originally designed for postal use, and don’t match the boundaries of other statistical or political geographies. I can vouch for this: they don’t even differentiate neatly between England and Wales. But as the introduction of Royal Mail’s Mailsort demonstrates, the postal purpose of postcodes isn’t what it once was.
  • Postcodes change. True, but… Royal Mail issues a ‘postcode update‘ every six months. Their website explains that there’s only been one significant change, affecting only Cambridge, in the last 3 years – a lifetime in IT terms. Hey, it’s not as if they’re recoding the entire nation every other week.

I’ve never seen either of these problems as insurmountable. And I’d argue that the amazing potential stemming from universal awareness of postcodes outweighs the hassle factors.
Postcodes are the country’s greatest example of the Power Of Information. I believe we would unlock significant power if we enshrined postcodes as our key national geography, asking Royal Mail to bequeath them to the nation. All statistical and political geography should be aligned with postcodes, with a commitment not to change them for 10 years, perhaps coinciding with the Census cycle. I don’t care if there are marginally more meaningful statistical boundaries; a flawed system we all understand beats a perfect system nobody understands. Oh, and it’s cheaper too.
With improved accessibility to meaningful local data would come improved accountability. A single online search would reveal who is responsible for what in your local area; and would link to appropriate data showing whether or not they were meeting their responsibilities.
The data is all out there, free of charge in almost all cases – but the chaos of conflicting geographies makes it almost impossible to work with. I don’t believe that’s a defensible position. Power to the postcodes!
Update, 8 July: There’s now a Commons Early Day Motion on freeing postcodes, attracting decent levels of support from Labour MPs. See this post for details…