Addresses are vital infrastructure for a modern country. As people and countries adapt to the internet age lists of addresses have become reference data. Other countries are making address reference data available for anyone to use, but the UK has chosen a different path by keeping restrictions on who can use the data. This will hinder the UK’s ambitions to be a leader in developing and adopting digital technology.
There is a website, OpenAddresses.io, that collects address data from around the world. The front page has a map that tells a tale.
Despite the UK having over 30 million addresses it looks empty and unoccupied.
Most of the rest of Europe is alight with dots of address data.
The map is a warning sign that, unlike other countries, the UK is failing to build vital 21st century infrastructure.
Address data is important
A little history is useful to help understand why addresses are so important.
Addresses were invented to help governments carry out public services like performing censuses, conscripting people into armies, and collecting taxes. Early addresses were written on houses.
People gradually realised that addresses could be useful to them as well as to their governments, so addresses got used more and more widely: to deliver post and parcels, to connect up water supplies, to find a local doctor, or to help us find our way around a strange town.
It seems inevitable that addresses have now become important to the digital services that we now rely on. An address is a vital piece of information that links together ordering a package on a website to the delivery driver finding your house.
As a result we increasingly store and exchange addresses as data within computers.
Authoritative address data is important
But if these computers had incorrect addresses then things would go wrong.
To reduce the chances of this happening the public sector agencies that were responsible for maintaining addresses started publishing lists of authoritative address reference data.
Authoritative address data should be as widely available as possible
But maintaining and publishing authoritative address data costs money and governments need to make a decision for how to pay for it.
There are several ways to do this. At the simplest level the costs could come from licence fees paid by organisations that use the data, registration fees paid by organisations that build properties, or from another form of taxation.
Some reference data is highly sensitive. Think of the location of domestic violence refuges. Societies rightly protect that kind of data due to the risk of harm.
But the list of addresses that exist in a particular place is less sensitive . It creates a low risk of harm to people, and creates more benefit as we make it easier for more people to use it.
Charging organisations to use the data works against that goal.
Other countries have moved to open address data
Because of the benefits of authoritative address data other countries have decided it should be openly available and free to use. They recover the costs from a combination of tax and registration fees. They have made free address data a public service.
Here is a list of countries in Northern and Western Europe. Twelve out of nineteen countries make address data available for free. The United Kingdom is one of only four countries that makes no data available for free.
|Country||Open address data|
This is what the map on the front page of the OpenAddresses.io websites shows.
Countries that have decided that openly available authoritative address data is a 21st century public service, and countries that have not.
Instead successive UK governments have told Ordnance Survey that they need to make a profit by selling licences for geospatial data, including address data, and when the Royal Mail was privatised in 2013 it was given the right to maintain and sell lists of postal addresses. Short-term decisions that could have long-term consequences.
These decisions create financial and legal barriers that make it hard for people to use address data.
As the Centre for Public Data has pointed out those barriers lead to gaps in services with associated social and economic costs.
The public sector feels the pain less because national government has paid £963m to be able to use geospatial data, including address data, for its own purposes. Businesses and civil society feel the pain more.
Address data is vital to the future
This is not just not about making it easier to deliver parcels today, it is about investing for the future.
Companies like Alibaba, Amazon, Baidu, Facebook and Google might spend billions researching and developing new technologies and services, but they also maintain boringly good reference data.
They know that boring infrastructure is needed to support their innovation.
It is similar for many other governments. Outside of the UK, making address data widely available is seen as a complement to digital and artificial intelligence strategies. It is an investment in the future.
Unfortunately the UK does not seem to see it that way.
We seem to still see address data like the Enlightenment Age governments that wrote addresses on houses for their own use, rather than a digital age government that makes reference data available for everyone to use.
It does not have to be like this
In 2018 the UK government created a Geospatial Commission to promote the best use of geospatial data, like addresses.
The Commission could establish a new, sustainable funding model and support the public sector to publish address data that is accurate, regularly updated, and freely usable by anyone offering services to people in the UK. It could treat address data as a public service.
That would help the UK keep up with other countries and be a wise investment in the UK’s future.
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