The next GPS? Matt Hancock talks up benefits of opening up address data

Minister for the Cabinet Office likens freeing up of UK address data to Ronald Reagan's decision to open GPS up to civilian use

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has said government is “ambitious and excited” about plans to free up the UK’s property address data with a new, open register.

Earlier this year, chancellor George Osborne promised to spend £5 million to build an open address register of all 29m UK postal addresses and 1.8m postcodes.

The move came after the government lost control of the existing Postcode Address File (PAF) system after it sold off Royal Mail in 2013. Since the sale, public sector organisations have had to apply to use the PAF system under a licence agreed by Royal Mail, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) & the Scottish Government.

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Geoplace — a separate organisation set up in 2010 and run as a public sector limited liability partnership between the Local Government Association (LGA) and Ordnance Survey — currently maintains a national database of addresses.

The organisation produces spatial address products with added grid reference coordinates that include data from local authorities, the PAF, and OS.

Speaking at Geoplace's annual conference, Hancock said addresses were "a fundamental part of all our lives and the bedrock of our nation’s data infrastructure".

But he added: "They are also an old data system and digital technology has long since moved on. I want to revolutionise how we use addresses: we cannot rely on systems developed in a different era which make address data difficult to use and reuse.

“The UK is leading on data, and now is the time to ensure we have precise and accurate addresses for companies, buildings and houses. This is good for business, government and the public.”

Hancock compared the UK’s efforts to create a single, authoritative and open register of addresses to the decision of Ronald Reagan's US administration to allow GPS data to be made freely available for civilian use in the 1980s, which he said had “kick-started a multi-billion dollar proliferation of digital goods and services”. 

“I want the UK to be the best place in the world to set up and grow a data business,” he said. “But in order to achieve this, we need to make future innovation simpler and remove the barriers that stifle progress.

“Innovation is impossible without being open to new ideas and new solutions — without being prepared to be bold. So we are working across government, with enthusiasm at the highest levels, to explore options for an open address register. There is lots of work for us still to do but we are ambitious and excited by the potential impact that an open address register could have.”

Paul Maltby, who was last year named as director of data in the Cabinet Office, has argued that an open address register should be seen as part of Britain’s “core national infrastructure”.

“Nearly everything that happens has a link to a physical location,” he wrote in March.

“Address data serves a broader purpose than the delivery of post, parcels and services. It anchors everything to a specific place, and it’s often this anchor that’s used to connect other types of data together. So for a modern economy, high-quality geospatial data, linked to the addresses that people use on a day to day basis, is incredibly important.”

The Government Digital Service has also named the creation of single, reliable registers of data as one of its top priorities,  with an authoritative, government-wide list of recognised countries launched by the FCO earlier this year, superseding the seven previous registers that had previously been used across government.

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