Why do we continue to pay for open location data?

Men confused by a map - Mitja Mavsar the Netherlost

I don't understand how our Government works. I understand that tough decisions often need to be made - but sometimes those decisions are so utterly without reason that you have to wonder if politicians spend most of their days "painting their noses".

The UK used to have a public sector postal service - the Royal Mail. Postmen need to know to where they were delivering mail. Postal Codes were created to help divide up the country into easily sortable destinations. And so, over time, a Postcode Address File was created. It listed every address in the UK and was the canonical source of data about UK locations.

Given that this was a public database, created with public money, for the public good - you would expect that this data would be available to benefit the public. It was not.

The Royal Mail kept their data behind lock and key - if you wanted access to it, you had to pay. Heavily.

Five years ago, the Earnest Marples project began in order to free our postcodes. They wanted the UK's nationally owned data to be available to the public at no cost. The project was swiftly killed by Royal Mail's lawyers.

Things dragged on, as they often do, until earlier this year when our Coalition Government decided to privatise the Royal Mail. I won't dwell on the fact that the sale cost the country billions of pounds. But I will point out that they also privatised the PAF. Now a private company controls our post codes and can charge pretty much what they like for access.

It's rare that I agree with a Tory MP, but Bernard Jenkin - the head of the Public Administration Select Committee was completely correct when he said:

The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake. Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again.
Sale of postcodes data was a 'mistake' say Committee - 17/03/2014

So, given that our Government professes to love Open Data - and knowing how decent location could generate billions of pounds of economic activity - what should be done?

I know! Let's pay the Open Data Institute £383,000 to recreate the data set!

Look, the ODI are properly awesome, but why are we paying them hundreds of thousands of pounds to recreate something we used to own? That's madness.

The Government is now paying a private company to create a service to deprive revenue from another private company which underpaid for a service which we sold them, even though we didn't have to, which makes a profit for the company which is still partially owned by the Government. Clear as mud.

Of course, the Government were warned in advance that privatising the PAF was a mistake. The people who warned them? The ODI!

No less a person than Sir Tim Berners-Lee criticised the sale and said:

Of course it is disappointing that the Address File has not been made public, a blow to the efficiency of UK businesses large and small. But we have hope.

The decision has been made to leave the file in the care of the Royal Mail. The Royal Mail may well decide to do the right thing and make it available as Open Data. This will allow the UK to participate in the explosion of location-based and mobile services happening around the world.
The Telegraph - 19 Apr 2013

So the ODI made "very forceful" protests to the Government and warned of the economic folly. Now, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, the ODI are being paid by the Government to fix the mistakes the ODI warned against!

This raises a few questions.

How will the ODI's dataset be different from the recently privatised PAF?

We can't have paying customers of the Royal Mail and consumers of this new open dataset working to incompatible standards - that would be a nightmare.

And, if they are compatible, will the Royal Mail take steps to recoup their loss of revenue? Either by changing their data so it is no longer compatible or simply suing?

Finally, maintaining a dataset which is constantly changing incurs a significant cost - at least, that was always the justification for charging for PAF access - so how much will we have to pay the ODI each year to ensure their data is up to date?

This is such a messed up situation. Can someone please give me directions to the nearest pub?

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