09 February 2009

Free The Postcode - Yes, *You* There

One of the most successful open projects is OpenStreetMap, which seeks to bypass the Ordnance Survey's stranglehold on geodata in the UK. It does this by enlisting the people - you and me - to recreate the maps that the OS guards, Fafnir-like, in its lair.

The success and simplicity of that approach suggests that it could be usefully applied in other circumstances where valuable public data is being kept proprietary by those hypnotised by the glint of gold. So I was delighted to learn about Free the Postcode:

The postcode database - which turns a postcode to a latitude/longitude and back - is not free in the UK. In fact, it's very expensive. The Post Office owns it and sells it to various companies that make use of it for things like insurance or parcel tracking. There are however many people who'd like to use it for non-profit purposes. Say you want to lay out events like free concerts / gigs on a map and you only have the postcode... you have to buy the database.

Instead, wouldn't it be nice if it was free like zipcodes are in the US? To do this, you have to have a number of people collaborating with GPS units who note positions and postcodes. Hence this site to collect that data.

The great thing about this project is that it is unstoppable: even if you wanted to, you couldn't prevent the majority of people from entering their drip of information, which means that the steady swelling of the cumulative ocean of data is equally ineluctable. This is what makes collaborative open projects so resilient: there is no one choke point that those who might object to its activites can attack.

So, basically, Mr Post Office, you're stuffed. (Via TechCrunch UK.)


Roger Lancefield said...

IMO. this is a very worthy project, and I wish more people would join in.

I first read about it a couple of years back on the "Free our Data" site, and immediately ordered a Garmin Geko and started filling in missing postcodes in my area. I've slacked off recently, and haven't uploaded any new postcode coordinates for well over a year now. Your post is a reminder that I should continue my efforts.

It's unfortunate, but the project doesn't seem to be getting many new contributors. The stats page indicates that there are still less than six thousand codes in the database, whereas there are around 1.7 million active codes. There's some way to go yet!

That said, the task is not as futile as the stats may seem to indicate, for the reasons stated on the project's stats page

Hopefully your post will encourage others to spread the word and get involved themselves, and will serve as a 'poke' to contributors who have slacked off, like me. Besides, it's fun taking one's GPS on trips, asking a local resident for the local postcode, recording the coordinates, and later uploading it to the database. Of course, these days it's behaviour that will probably get you arrested and your Garmin probed and then exploded by some caterpillar-tracked, remotely controlled robot. Sheeesh...

glyn moody said...

I think lack of publicity is a big part of the problem - I hope my 'umble blog might help.