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Free postcoders bang on Ordnance Survey door

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The co-founder of a UK postcode lookup service that was forced to shut down after the Royal Mail threatened the website with legal action in October last year, is calling on the developer community to consult with the government on Ordnance Survey mapping data.

Harry Metcalfe, who launched ErnestMarples.com with Richard Pope in July last year, told The Register today that he had created a web portal for British citizens to tell the OS to set free its mapping data.

His efforts to get people to respond “en masse” to the government consultation - which the public has until 17 March to wade into - followed Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s dismissive response to an online petition last Friday.

It had asked the government to convince the Royal Mail to offer a free postcode database to non-profit and community websites. More than 2,000 people signed the petition.

However, Number 10 responded negatively to the plea just one day after the Cabinet Office took the wraps off data.gov.uk, which is a project intended to make more government information freely available to British citizens.

UK.gov released its 91-page consultation in December. Its proposals on OS data followed Brown's desire to open up some postcode information from April this year.

El Reg rightly pointed out at the time that those plans appeared to fall short of getting the Royal Mail to allow its contentious Postcode Address File (PAF) database opened up for free access on the internet.

By Friday Number 10 confirmed that the PAF database wouldn't be opened up to all-comers.

'You win some, you lose some'

Metcalfe told us today that he hoped lots of pro-free postcode data supporters would offer their opinions on the OS consultation paper.

"If the only people who respond to that consultation are the incumbent commercial players then they’ll put the rest of us in a very difficult position," he said.

However, the consultation paper makes only scant reference to the PAF, and most of that - as we previously reported - is negative.

"This consultation isn’t about PAF," agreed Metcalfe. "It’s about OS data and particularly about locations of postcodes rather than mapping postcodes to addresses."

But he believes that the arguments about mapping postcodes to locations can equally be applied to the PAF, which the developer thinks should be paid for by government.

"It’s a critical piece of our infrastructure and it’s not appropriate to be held at 'arm’s length' as it is at the moment," said Metcalfe.

But some opponents of freeing up the postcode data have argued that the government would foot a multi-million pound bill for maintaining the PAF if it did release the database from the Royal Mail's clutches.

"The PAF isn't a big money spinner for the Royal Mail. It brought in £20m in 2006/2007, which I think went up to £25m in 2007/20008. If you compared that to the scale of the operation, it’s peanuts," he said.

"We’re in a situation where Royal Mail doesn’t have anything beneficial other than their vast experience, which shouldn’t be underestimated, but UK PLC would be better off if we just published the data and made it free for anyone to use."

Metcalfe added that while the launch of data.gov.uk should be applauded as a project many in the UK developer community should be proud of, some of the most important data remains locked up behind commercial operations.

"Everything where there's a clear commercial use, which tends to be the stuff that is most obviously useful, has all been put behind fees," he said.

"But data.gov.uk isn't toothless, it has tools that are extremely useful and it adds to the growing movement towards getting more government data set free." ®

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