Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Locate that postcode


Many of you will probably remember the news story a while ago about the forced closure of, a website which provided a free postcode geolocation API that was, in turn, used by several other organisations running public service websites.

The reason it was shut down was because postcode geolocation data is the property of Royal Mail, who charge a fee for its use through the “Postzon” database.

Following the closure, a petition was created on the PM’s website for the release of a free postcode database to non-profit and community websites. This gathered 2,333 signatories, which is pretty good going. However, the government response, either deliberately or through simple misunderstanding, focussed solely on the Postcode Address File (or PAF) database – that is, the database of every single address in the UK. That’s not what was using, and it’s not what the petition was really about.

What was using was the data contained in what Royal Mail calls “Postzon“. That’s a list of postcodes together with geographic coordinates of the postcode centre and information about which council ward, etc, it belongs to. Despite not going down to the level of individual addresses, the Postzon data is still hugely useful for a lot of applications. Geocoding to a postcode is helpful for things like local weather reports, “show me my nearest…” applications, overview navigation, etc. All the stuff that was being provided by the API until they were shut down, basically.

I think it’s reasonable to make a distinction between Postzon and PAF, at least for now. The PAF is an absolutely huge dataset that changes very rapidly – it changes every time a house, office, factory, warehouse, shop etc is built or demolished – and hence costs a substantial amount to maintain. I think it’s broadly acceptable that the Post Office should be able to recoup the costs of maintaining it when making it available to other organisations. However, the Postzon data is essentially static, and only changes when a postcode changes. So the cost of keeping it updated is relatively minimal, and hence there’s really no justification for charging for it – especially since, unlike the PAF, it doesn’t actually play any role in the delivery of mail. Other countries, such as the US, make their equivalent of Postzon available for free.

In the light of the government’s unsatisfactory response to the previous petition prompted by the closure of, I’ve created a new one. I’ve tried to word it in such a way that the government can’t possibly avoid responding to the main point by waffling on about the PAF instead. If you think that basic postocode data should be free, then please sign this petition:

We need a minimum of 500 signatories to force a response from the government. So your signature counts.

If you want more information about why this matters, then I’d encourage you to have a look at these websites:

Incidentally, if you’re thinking that this petition isn’t necessary because the government has already made a commitment to releasing the postcode data, then think again. That promise is a very vague and woolly one, and still subject to various consultations. You can be sure that vested interests will be arguing strongly against the full release of Postzon or anything like it. And the fact that such proposals weren’t mentioned in their response to the previous petition is very telling. A significant aim of this petition is to remind the government that we, their electorate, are asking for this. There’s a lot of activity going on to try to persuade the government to rlease the Postzon data. This petition is just one small part of that.

Go on, sign now. You know it makes sense.