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I had a meeting with the Shadow Business Secretary about the Postcode Address File (!)
Meme the change you want to see in the world
The most ridiculous thing happened.
It turns out that
powerful campaigning journalism constantly banging on about something can sometimes make important people pay attention.
And that’s how, inexplicably, yesterday I ended up in a meeting with Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary about… you guessed it… The Postcode Address File (PAF).
The short version, for newer readers, is that the PAF is the big database of every postal address in the UK. It’s not personal data, but literally just the address of every physical building. And due to a quirk of history, the dataset is currently privately owned and managed by Royal Mail, which charges hefty licensing fees to anyone who wants to use address data.
This means that if you’ve got a cool idea for a business or an app, or if you simply want to mash up address data with another dataset, you’ve got to fork out some serious cash before you even get started. The fees start at around £6000 if you want to simply make a website that will autocomplete a customer’s address based on their postcode. Which is crazy.
So my view, given that our address is a foundational digital building blocks in our lives, is that this amounts to a tax on innovation. Instead, it would be better if the PAF were to be released for free as open data so that everyone from bedroom coders to start-up entrepreneurs could build new things using it. And if the PAF were free, it would unlock some much-needed economic growth.
It’s a dream that nerds have been trying to make happen for well over a decade now1.
For example, in 2013, no less than the inventor of the Web itself, Tim Berners-Lee said that “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.”
And in 2014, Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who was then head of the Public Administration Select Committee said that “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.”2
Anyway, because I’m a very funny man who is good at jokes, you’ll find that I tend to humorously reference it in almost every post on here, as part of my schtick.
And that’s basically3 how I memed myself into a meeting in Portcullis House, sat across the table from Jonny Reynolds. Who, after the next election, could well be in a position to actually liberate the PAF. And he was giving me the chance to make the case directly to him.
Now don’t worry, given this opportunity, I thought it best not to go alone. So I wisely assembled a team I call the ‘PAF Avengers’ – actual experts who actually know what they’re talking about, and brought them with me to do the talking.
So as you can see in the photo above, we have Hadley Beeman, Anna Powell-Smith, and Peter Wells – all of whom have worked on open data and have been advocating for the liberation of the PAF for many years, and are thoroughly excellent people.
They are three of the many heroes who, instead of just annoyingly tweeting about it, have been doing the actual heavy lifting of figuring out what mechanically might need to change in government, the options for paying for it, and generally figuring out all of the details4.
As for the meeting itself, I won’t go into the details because, you know, policy making doesn’t happen quickly. Nor do I know whether Jonny was persuaded by our arguments, because obviously as a politician, it is his job to weigh all manner of competing priorities, and he has to take the views of many different stakeholders into account. So it might turn out that freeing the PAF simply isn’t something he or Labour wants to do. That’s how politics works.
But I will say that I’m thrilled and grateful that Jonny and his colleagues took the time to meet with us and gave us the opportunity to make the case to him directly. Whether or not the cause of the PAF was nudged any further or not, it is exciting to see Labour engaging with the nerds to learn how open data can grow the economy.
And of course, if there are any other MPs reading, from any party, I’d also be very happy to meet with you to bang the PAF drum too. So get in touch – and maybe one day, the Postcode Address File will be free!
Subscribe now (for free!) for more politics, policy and interminable PAF content. I also write about other cool policy ideas like the clever new system DfT is building for improving car parks, why Britain should become a lab meat superpower, why we should densify our high streets, why we should legalise e-scooters and how we can make local government work better.
Or to celebrate the fact that I memed my way into a meeting about it, if you take out a paid subscription this week, not only will you get MORE CONTENT, but if you email me your address (don’t forget your postcode), I will send you a “FREE THE PAF” badge.
And don’t worry folks, a proper new weekly essay will be arriving later this week.
Both the TBL and Bernard Jenkin quotes were flagged in this 2014 post from the excellent Terence Eden – another open data/PAF hero who has been an advocate of PAF liberation for many years now.
I might write about some of the intricacies of liberating the PAF, if there’s demand for it. By which I mean, of course I’ll inevitably write about it at some point regardless.