It needs to be more disruptive if it is going to help deliver on Government Ministers’ hopes that data will be the backbone of the UK’s recovery from Coronavirus. It needs to do more to encourage the UK’s geospatial institutions to adapt to and thrive in the 21st century.
This blogpost contains an idea to help.
Understand the address mess and then start cleaning it up with a new government service.
UK address data is a mess
UK address data is a mess. The data is low quality. It is hard to understand what can legally be done or how to fix things.
And governance is a mess. The Geospatial Commission, GeoPlace, Scottish Improvement Service, Northern Ireland Land & Property Service, local authorities, Ofcom, Land Registry, the VOA, Ordnance Survey and the privatised Royal Mail are all involved. Organisations find themselves talking with several of these institutions to get things done.
UPRNs will not clean up the address mess
Government has many levers to try and clean up this mess.
The new FindMyAddress website by GeoPlace is designed to help citizens find the UPRNs for their homes and places of work.
The new website has a poor user experience. Because of the address mess the very first thing you see is 5300 words of legal text.
But there is a more fundamental problem. UPRNs are boring and should be invisible. UPRNs help data geeks, like me. UPRNs are useful when they connect together services.
Citizens know addresses. If a citizen needs to know their UPRN then something somewhere has gone wrong. Every visit to this website is a failure.
Build an address service
Government needs to build a service, not a website.
The website has a nice bit. The text area to search for addresses. A user starts to type in an address and it helps them find an address and UPRN. A neat bit of work by GeoPlace and Aligned Assets.
Turning that neat address search functionality into a common component that any service designer can easily reuse, let’s call it GOV.UK FindMyAddress, would be a place to start cleaning up the address mess.
GeoPlace and Aligned Assets should be working with local authorities, Government Digital Services and the Digital Land team at MHCLG to do this.
The search field would become an API designed to improve the flow and data quality from a user entering an address to a UPRN being passed to back-end services.
The code should be open source. Many people will help maintain it, while anyone can fork the code and do their own thing. Openness supports competition as well as collaboration.
The API would also help to discover errors or omissions in the data. It can feed those back into Geoplace and local authority’s address management processes.
Collaborative maintenance will gradually improve both data quality and the service. Win win.
Other things that a service team should explore
A service team would also explore business models and governance.
Perhaps the Office of National Statistics should be involved. It would provide one of the most foundational parts of statistics and the planned public sector integrated data infrastructure with long-term stability.
Rather than regulating Royal Mail and paying them £16m for access to postal addresses, the new service could publish postal addresses too. The same data foundations can support both digital and physical services.
This will reduce the need for some of the £963m 10-year Public Sector Geospatial Agreement. Hopefully the contract allows the price to change as needs change.
This competition from within the public sector will help provide the OS with the impetus to change and provide better services in other parts of the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure.
A way forward?
Creating a GOV.UK FindMyAddress service that helps deliver better services and better address data might be a good idea. Or it might not.
But it is more likely to clean up the address mess than anything in the UK’s Geospatial Strategy.
We need to fund teams to explore innovative ideas if the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure is going to thrive in the 21st century.