Way To Go, Ernest Marples! UK to Free Postal Code Database

Adam DuVander, December 11th, 2009

marples2According to a BBC report, the UK will make its postal code database available to the public in April of next year. This follows a rogue API that provided the data, but was mum about where it came from. That site, ErnestMarples.com was named after a former postmaster general.

This marks a major shift, as the Royal Mail previously charged at least 1000 pounds ($1600 USD) per year for access to the data. In October it forced ErnestMarples.com to shut down the API. The legal action appears to be triggered by a database leak that seems unrelated to the API, which claimed to maintain no database or cache of results.

ErnestMarples.com founder Harry Metcalfe recently met with the Royal Mail, a meeting which he described as positive. The data, however, will be released through the UK mapping agency, Ordnance Survey. “I’d like to think we had something to do with it, but it’s very difficult to tell what actually tipped the balance,” Metcalfe said.

The big question seems to be what the Ordnance Survey actually intends to release. “The thing I’m most concerned about is data accuracy,” Metcalfe said. “Any applications need address-level accuracy so anything short of that would be a mistake.”

Ed Freyfogle, co-founder of property search engine Nestoria, agrees. “Right now lack of access to basic data like this stifles innovation,” Freyfogle said. With the Ordnance Survey’s intent to release data, Freyfogle is “cautiously optimistic” and points to several community campaigns, including the Guardian’s Free Our Data.

For more background on Ernest Marples, watch the video interview with Metcalfe (embedded below). It was recorded before the latest news about the postal code being freed, but provides a great overview of the effort. In it, Metcalfe calls postal code data a “necessary prerequisite for many of the kinds of services government are encouraging people to make.”

For developers of location-based applications, it makes a ton of sense to be able to geocode postal codes. The full codes, such as SW1A 1AA (Buckingham Palace), are roughly equivalent to the complete 9 digit (5+4) U.S. Zip codes, providing address-level accuracy.

If UK developers get the accuracy they want, what would Ernest Marples think? “Hah! I don’t know,” Metcalfe said. “Hopefully he’d be pleased.”

Hat tip: Directions Magazine

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Adam DuVander
Executive Editor, ProgrammableWeb. Author, Map Scripting 101. Lover, APIs.