Today it’s my pleasure to present the next update in our interview series with open geo thought leaders with a discussion with Jeni Tennison, who is working on creating an Open Address Service for the United Kingdom.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Jeni.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I am the Technical Director at the UK’s Open Data Institute.

2. You’re working on creating an open address service for the UK. What exactly does that mean and why is this needed?

Yes, we’ve had a Discovery Phase funded by Cabinet Office to look into how an open address database and service might work. The vision is of a database of all the addresses in the country that anyone can download, reuse and even republish under an open licence, and of a service provided on top of that database that enables people to look up or validate addresses and get lists of addresses that meet particular criteria.

There are of course existing databases and services that can do this, but they aren’t open. That limits what people can do with address information. For example, it means that fewer organisations validate addresses than should, which has a knock-on effect of reducing the quality of data that contains addresses and reducing the ability to bring together information about addresses from multiple sources.

We think that making important reference databases like these open for everyone helps to make lots of data easier to work with, which increases the value of that data.

3. What are the main barriers to opening the data?

The main sources of address data in the UK are from the Postcode Address File (PAF), maintained and sold by Royal Mail, and AddressBase, maintained by GeoPlace and sold by Ordnance Survey, which is heavily based on PAF. Making PAF and AddressBase open would challenge the existing business models of Royal Mail, GeoPlace and Ordnance Survey, so they haven’t so far shown any interest in making that data open. Royal Mail probably has database rights in PAF; previous attempts to simply republish it for everyone has just resulted in Cease & Desist letters.

So the main barriers to an open address database for the UK generally are around the business and legal constraints on opening existing address databases. And given that, there are then technical and social challenges to recreating an address database from other sources.

4. You recently hosted the Open Address Symposium in London. Who attended, what was discussed, what are the outcomes and how will things go forward?

We organised the Open Addresses Symposium at the beginning of August, and had over 80 people attend. They were a mix of people, including incumbant suppliers such as Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey and GeoPlace and existing providers like GB Group and Experian, through to prospective data users like the BBC, Government Digital Service (GDS) and Google, geospatial SMEs, startups, academics and OpenStreetMap volunteers.

We discussed the goals, requirements and challenges for the Open Addresses project. We looked at the needs of different users, what an address is, where we could source address data from, and how to engage people in a collaborative effort to create an address database. The slides from the day are available.

We’re taking the input from everyone at that event and a few other pieces of work from the Discovery Phase of this project, which will inform the alpha phase of Open Addresses, where we actually start building the database and website.

5. How will the open address service relate to efforts like OpenStreetMap and http://openaddresses.io ?

OpenStreetMap is obviously an extremely useful open source of geospatial information for the UK and worldwide. However, it doesn’t contain a lot of addresses at the moment and it uses a viral share-alike licence which can be difficult for commercial organisations to adopt. Our goal would be for Open Addresses to be an open source of address information that could be used within OpenStreetMap.

openaddresses.io is an international effort to bring together open address information, specified through a file that points to a source of address data on the web. It might be that the UK Open Addresses effort can contribute data to openaddresses.io, but the UK Open Addresses platform needs to support address-level crowd-sourcing, inference and bringing together multiple sources of data about individual addresses, which go beyond what openaddresses.io currently supports.

6. What is the best way for volunteers to contribute to the project?

Right now we’re interested in getting in touch with anyone who is keen to supply address data into Open Addresses as well as anyone who wants to explore with us how they could use the database or service. For now, the best contact point is [email protected] .

Many thanks Jeni and good luck with your efforts. 

I can remember contributing to the original Free the Postcode project back in 2006. In many ways it’s easy to get so excited by the amazing progress of OpenStreetMap over the last decade. The situation on addressing is a sobering reminder that there is still so much to do when it comes to open geo data. 

We encourage anyone with access to UK addresses to get involved in this worthwhile effort. Best of luck to all involved. 

For those in London, Jeni will be speaking at #geomob on 13th January 2015, and hopefully have encouraging progress to report. We look forward to seeing you all there.

On a final note, OpenCage advisor Steven Feldman recently posted his own summary of the Open Addresses Symposium.

Ed (freyfogle)

You can see all the Open Geo interviews here.