back to article Free postcoders bang on Ordnance Survey door

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 with Richard Pope …


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  1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Interesting business model

    Your customers using a post-code makes it much cheaper and easier for you to deliver mail.

    So you charge them for the post-code data !

    I think I'll try that. It will cost you £6000 for the phone number of our sales dept. that shoudl make us millions of £.

    Of course the PO is a monopoly, and it's not like there is any alternate way of sending mail or instantly messaging someone than by printing them out and putting a stamp on them

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Not only is the PO not a monopoly, they are forced to sell their services to their competitors at below cost. Other providers pay RM less for the "last mile" than it actually costs them to deliver, and RM are locked into this pricing by the government. The reason for this is simple; nobody would have been interested in bidding for the rights to compete with RM had they been forced to pay a fair price for the RM services that they use.

      The problem being that Nulabour see everything as being a way of making money, so they want to privatise by the back door every bit of the public sector that they can and then charge the operators for the franchise. Of course they have to get companies interested first so the franchise fees start off low and then creep up.

      It's the reason that our public transport system is by far the most expensive in Europe. In other countries public transport is subsidised by the government, in this country the government is subsidised by public transport. Operators are expected to pay the government a hefty fee in order to operate. Which is why east coast mainline services keeps changing hands. Nobody can manage to operate at a profit once the franchising fee is taken into account. And they call themselves a labour government?

      1. Richard 120


        Not only do the competitors get the last mile at below cost RM also deal with returns for free.

        So, let's say a company called shittylink decided to collect a whole bunch of mail (the easy and profitable part) they then take the post to RM, who sort it and deliver it (the last mile) if the mail is marked undeliverable by the occupant and put back into a post box then it gets picked up sorted and returned not to shittylink, but the actual sender. In any normal B2B relationship the stuff would be dumped back on to shittylink as (in my opinion they are) the sender of the mail.

        There would at least be some recompense for this sort of thing occurring.

        I don't really understand where things which are national services get privatised in order to compete, I've not seen it work for anything.

        Since British Telecom went has service improved? Not as far as I can tell, the service it once supplied has developed a new Delhi accent.

        Same for electricity, gas and railways.

        I suppose the counter argument could be the NHS, but I think that there's a certain amount of movement towards privatisation which has buggered that up too, people can choose which hospital they want to be treated at etc. The whole NHS database setup is likely to be a sweetener paid for by taxpayers companies wouldn't have to come along and do any administration work they could just charge for healthcare and make profits, ultimately "competition" in these sorts of things is an illusion, profits go up as a result of standards decreasing. For some reason there HAS to be constant growth of profits, the profits don't have to be consistent, they have to grow, otherwise you're losing money apparently, I never understood the maths there.

        Competition on the railways? I know I won't travel from Cambridge to London to go to work, instead I'll go on a different network... doesn't really work.

        Competition for RM? Nope, no such thing.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    The data is valuable

    Why would the governement ever make this data freely available when it is making millions for the post office already and will contribute to the value of an inevitable future Post Office privatisation?

    If a punter wants to find a UK post codethey only need to it into google earth.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      >The data is valuable

      @when it is making millions for the post office already

      Because the income from the PAF is tiny compared to the extra costs of processing un-postcoded mail.

      It's like having an extra fee in a shop for having the correct change!

      1. Red Bren

        An extra fee?

        Actually the opposite is true. Buy a copy of the PAF database, use it to put your mail into walksort order and Royal Mail give you BIG discounts on your postal costs. Of course, you need send a lot of mail to make it worthwhile.

        BTW, I've never worked for Royal Mail, but I did work for a utility and used the PAF all the time.

    2. Richard 120
      Thumb Down


      You can't do a reverse lookup

  3. RW

    What Britain needs

    Is the US attitude toward these things: they're paid for by the people, hence they're not even copyright. Indeed, the US GPO (Government Printing Office) has, over the decades, published documents on an astonishing variety of subjects. Examples: hairy math relating to the quantum mechanical analysis of molecular spectra, as prepared by the boffins of the National Bureau of Standards; recipes as used in government cafeterias devised by home economists in the Department of Agriculture; and the design of restraints for large animals, also thanks to the Dept. of Agriculture.

    And to cap it all off, the prices charged by the GPO are only nominal.

    The US is a far from perfect country (like all the others) but at least it gives the people back _something_ for their money.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      AFAIK the US doesn't even have a decent equivalent to the postcode system.

      1. Linbox


        Although we only normally see the standard 5-digit zip code, which equates to a town/city, there is an option four digits which identify small areas within the postal region.

        Almost identical, in fact, to our UK postcode.

        07030 = Hoboken, New Jersey

        07030-5861 = 333 River Street, Hoboken. Apartments 533 - 602

        07030-5862 = 333 River Street, Hoboken. Apartments 603 - 645

        And the lookup service on the USPS website is unlimited and free.

      2. Whisky_35_Alpha

        Typical ignorance

        Err, FAIL, it's called a zip code.




        20500-0003 (the zip code, usually shortened to the first 5)

      3. Gene Cash Silver badge

        The US DOES have a postcode equivalent

        The US has ZIP code. It's basically the number of the nearest post office. They've now done ZIP+4, too.

      4. Anonymous Coward

        Eh? - What?

        Then you don't know much.... In the US we have the postal ZIP code:

        5 digits gets you the general neighborhood within the city.

        4 additional digits gets you the exact address to the building.

        For instance Beverly Hills, CA has 5 ZIP codes 90209-90213 while the real Beverly Hills High School (not the Torrance stand-in for the TV series 90210 based on the ZIP code) has a direct ZIP code of:


        Every address in the US has a 9 digit direct ZIP code - and yes, that means each ZIP code doesn't have more than 9999 addresses.

        Even better, all the info is owned by the people, for the people; not by the queen, for the queen.

      5. Hungry Sean


        I know that the UK's postcodes are impressively accurate (often down to a couple of buildings), whereas our ZIP codes are much larger, but ZIP + 4 should be pretty darn close (of course, no one seems to remember the last 4 numbers).

        Cheers from across the pond.

      6. SkippyBing


        I mean you've heard of Beverly Hills 90210 right, did you think they just made the number up?! They also seemed to have developed a phone number system that uses less digits to address more people, possibly they're not all called George W Bush...

      7. Tony Sweeney

        Ever heard of ZIP codes?

        A full U.S. ZIP code for a given address is nine digits, not just the five that you see in, for example, Beverly Hills 90210, and is considerably more accurate than a U.K. postcode. A U.K. postcode is typically shared by dozens of addresses. When I lived in California, my 9-digit ZIP covered four apartments that shared a single stairwell. Lots of properties have unique 9-digit ZIPs. Further, the US Postal Service has a 12 digit Barcode standard based on the 9-digit ZIP code and 2 additional bits of resolution plus a check digit which guarantees to resolve to a single mailbox. More than you ever needed to know here:

  4. Eitsop

    The alternative

    I guess the people could use thier collective power and refuse to use post codes and develop our own free alternative that we can stick on letters...

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Post codes - the pub system

      Right at the Red Lion, down to the Queen's Head then left, carry on until you can see The Kebab and Calculator, look right and it's the one with the blue Cortina on bricks in the driveway.

      Coat: mine's the one with a few metric tonnes of undelivered mail in the pocket

  5. harrym

    Government has to pay for it

    Just to clarify -- I did say that Government should pay for the data to be maintained. I do understand that it costs money.

    I just don't think that it costs much compared to the added value it would have by being free for all uses.

  6. Valerion

    Not a money spinner?

    Sorry but £25m for doing nothing is a pretty good money-spinner if you ask me. Doesn't matter how much you make overall, £25m for doing naff all is good business sense.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      OK then...

      ...if you think maintaing the PAF involves doing sweet FA I'm sure that RM would be happy to outsource the work to you at a nominal fee. What shall we call it then, one person, 37 hour week, minimum wage?

      1. ShellShockeD

        i will take that job

        how meny new post codes are created each day ?

        so how meny field would you have to input ?

        not a bloody lot so yeah i will take that job

        1. Anonymous Coward

          @i will take that job

          Good! That comes with the development and maintenance of a database (hosted on a mainframe) plus a spatial database (and associated front-end, hosted on some Win2k servers) that contains the spatial location of all addresses that make up the postcode, because obviously it'd be a bit useless if said postcode couldn't help you to identify where the mail should be delivered.

          Then when you allocate a new postcode (e.g. to a new housing development in the middle of nowhere), you first need to ensure that you associate it with the most sensible delivery office (not always easy if you happen to allocate on the limit between 2 or more DO) and then you need to update the delivery route information to take into account that new postcode. Oh yeah and make sure that when you allocate a new postcode to a mail delivery round it fits in with the way that round is done: no use adding a mostly pedestrian area to a round done in a van or to add an area that requires several miles of driving to a round done on foot with a trolley.

          So if you can do it all yourself for the same annual wages as an average postman, I'm sure RM would love to hear from you.

          The difficulty is not in coming up with the combination of 5 to 7 letters and digits that make a postcode, it's in managing all the related information because postcodes are so central to everything RM do.

          Once you've worked out how to do all this, don't forget to factor in the cost of hosting the server kit mentioned above, making sure that the whole system is resilient, includes disaster recovery and is snappy enough because those databases get quite a few hits.

          See that's why in IT we always cringe when someone says "how difficult can that be?" after 2 seconds spent looking at the problem.

          Disclaimer: I've worked on that spatial database above so my opinion may be biased.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            ...there's the ongoing maintenance. For example test mails are sent out to business postcodes in order to test that the business is still active. If the test fails the postcode is deleted from the PAF. If a new business moves into the building a new postcode may be allocated. And so on.

            It actually costs quite a bit to maintain, and it doesn't just benefit RM. It benefits anybody using the postal service - use the postcode and get faster delivery. How often do private individuals need to access the PAF? If I'm posting something and I don't have a postcode then I ask the recipient for their postcode.

            Oddly enough a quick straw poll round the office has revealed that the reason many people access the PAF has nothing to do with post. It's to get postcodes for their sat navs, apparently because they don't want to have to put a full address into the sat nav. So private use of the PAF is not benefitting RM in any way, but helping sat nav users. Why shouldn't the sat nav users pay?

            Many people consider that it would be reasonable to roll PAF funding into the cost of a stamp, or charges to the other mail collectors. I don't agree. Why should people using the postal service pay for the maintenance of the PAF when it is so heavilly used by sat nav users.

            Many sat navs can't find my house, they always seem to put it on a parallel street presumably because there are only a few yards between the streets and they map the postcode to a grid reference or similar. It always makes me smile when some courier has to ring me because his sat nav has landed him on the wrong street and he's too dumb read a map.

            1. Jon 52


              most of that work is just a benefit to the Royal Mail delivery service though, so they should pay to sort out the logistics problems of what posty to send where.

          2. ravenviz Silver badge

            A change in sight?

            Well since post codes were first used in UK in 1959 (thank you Wikipedia) the system was designed to make visual mail sorting easier in the first place, it is reasonably straightforward to remember the postal towns by the first two letters (KT=Kingston, MK=Milton Keynes, etc.) for purposes of redistribution. So when the item gets to it's local distribution centre then the sub post-office (KT1, KT2, etc.) is easy to remember for local delivery people, then down to street level (KT1 1AA, 1AB, etc.) individual on-foot deliverers will know where that is. By then of course they could just use the rest of the normal address (22, Acacia Avenue, etc.).

            But, in 1959 there was no clever computers that could actually read the letters and do the sorting for you (as is done now for the vast majority of mail) so in a way, the current system in UK is outdated and could be replaced by an eight digit grid reference accurate to within 10m, and a house number. Andn you can get those quite easily from Ordnance Survey...

            Oh, hang on a minute...

    2. harrym

      That's turnover

      £25m turnover, not profit. Profit was approx 1.8m.

      Their licence prevents them from making more than 10% profit from PAF annually.

  7. Keith Clancy

    Postcode DB in .NL is free

    Its free in the Netherlands ...

  8. Chris Miller

    Already free for personal use

    Two different markets here:

    a) 'personal' (or small business) users who just want the ability to find a postcode for an individual address - Royal Mail and several other web sites already provide lookup capabilities on their web sites. It's usually limited to 10 goes per day in order to prevent its use by;

    b) bulk mailers (large businesses) who need to address lots of items every day and automatically generate full address from house number + postcode. There are commercial programs available for this purpose and the companies that produce them buy the raw data from Royal Mail (plus electoral registers and others).

  9. LUke Ireland

    Its also free in the UK

    From the Royal Mail website. It is just not free for commercial users who use it mainly for speeding up order processing over the phone/web and for anti-fraud purposes.

    I'm the one who doesn't think everything in the world should be free, being as I have a job and all that....Shall I get my coat?

    1. Richard 120
      Thumb Down

      I don't think everything should be free

      Just stuff that I've already paid for

  10. Russell Howe

    Not sure who said it

    but another commenter on a related article put it quite well - something along the lines of that if the PAF doesn't pay for itself in terms of operational efficiencies within RM, then it's pointless. The extra income from selling access to the database should therefore in theory simply be a supplement rather than something necessary to the operation of RM.

    In that sense, it's less "money for nothing" and more "money for doing what you were doing anyway".

    One thing I don't really like the idea of is that if RM do actually open it up, their competitors who previously had to pay them for the postcode data get it for free. That's a double whammy for RM's competitiveness.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      The main reason that the RM charge businesses for access to the PAF is fairly simple. Much of the use of the PAF is nothing to do with posting things.

      How often have you been asked for your house number and postcode? This is magically resolved to a full address by accessing the PAF. Even if the reason for this was to mail order something to be delivered by RM the use of the PAF does not in anyway benefit RM it's just to speed up the business process. The same thing would be achieved by asking for your full address, but it would take longer.

      Likewise couriers who have no relationship with RM will often use the PAF in order to validate an address. Or they may use it to plan their own delivery routes.

      In these cases why should RM foot the bill?

      And as for private individuals accessing the PAF. WTF would you want to do that for? I can't think of a single reason.

  11. Gordon 10

    The new freetards

    So these people want to give away something that presumably my taxes have are already paying the upkeep on. Any clawing back of this upkeep is welcome - even if it means I have to fund the posties by 20m less. Regardless of whether its peanuts or not tell them to stick it!

    These are just a different stripe of freetards right? If the Govt is able to monetise their data - and for change there are no privacy implications then fair play to them.

  12. Valerion

    @AC 16:36

    The point is the Royal Mail have to maintain the PAF regardless of whether they sell it as it is obviously used by them anyway.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dutch thinking is good

    Britain should do more to emulate the Dutch. Chocolate sprinkles, Coffee Shops, Red Lights and free Postcode data for all.

    My vote goes to the candidate who wears a pair of clogs whilst smoking a doobee, both of which are not criminal acts if done in the Netherlands.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Dutch thinking is good, not sure about yours

      Pray tell, where is it a criminal act to wear clogs?

    2. ravenviz Silver badge

      Royal Dutch

      Free postcodes are only tolerated in The Netherlands, they're still illegal.

      Oh damn, there I go again mixing up postcodes and soft drugs.

  14. JimC

    >Government has to pay for it

    Which of course means you and I have to pay for it... I didn't realise you Register folks were so keen on increased public spending...

  15. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Blow the postcode

    How about all that Ordnance Survey mapping data? Now that's something I want...

  16. blackworx


    Right, postcode lookups are free to individuals, but if you want to make money off it then you have to pay. I personally see nothing wrong with this. It's commercially useful information.

    What I do see something wrong with is some businessman trying to hoodwink private individuals into becoming some sort of pressure campaign to help him get something for nothing.

    RM are getting shafted by the government, their own staff, and the competition. Seems to me we used to have a perfectly functional mail service, but this shambles of an attempt at privatisation has fucked it up beyond all recognition.

    Used to be if you said "it must be lost in the post" it was nothing more than a barefaced lie you'd come out with for not having paid your gas bill on time. Can't we just go back to that please?

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    commercial use

    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,"

    Hence the word commercial in the above statement. It has value therefore it is chargeable.

    Postcodes are optional on letters - you don't need one to have your post handled by the postie. They even deliver mail addressed in the form "the red roofed house behind the pub that used to be the White Hart in the middle of Barchester"

    If you need a postcode to address a letter where you have the street and house number already, you go to and it gives you it for free.

    What people are after is the geographical match of postcode to a point so you can work out things that are 10 miles from a given postcode.

    I know the people behind bang on about the community services but so far as I recall one of their sites was to tell you where your nearest pharmac y was - which does very effectively as well as giving opening hours, phone numbers and maps. But I digress

  18. Anonymous Coward

    I think went up to £25m in 2007/20008

    well, if that's all it did for those millenia, i say put the dog down.

  19. Dodgy Dave
    Thumb Down

    They are still abusing a monopoly

    This data, which certainly the Post Office have spent time and effort maintaining, is valuable for just one reason: everybody uses it. It's only selling point is that it's a database that the public have learnt off by heart.

    Imagine the alternative: Google gives every street in the UK a Googlecode, and starts a price war with the PO over access costs. Then MS will want to give you a Bing-zip to get a piece of the action. Next, the GNU Free Street Index Database, which will fragment into rival factions. Before long, the punter will need to remember half a dozen of the blessed things, so no-one will bother and we'll be back to square one.

    In other words - the PO have only come to have this valuable bit of IP in their hands because, when it was originally developed, they had monopoly power. It is not reasonable that they should tilt the playing field by charging other delivery services to use it; that's clearly not in the interests of the public.

    Why are postcodes any harder to maintain and distribute than, say, DNS records?



  20. Simon Booth

    Census is a nominal fee, why not postcodes?

    I got the entire 2001 UK census on a pile of DVDs/CDs (15 or so of them) for 125 quid about four years ago

    There's a huge quantity of data in that lot (including quite a bit of 2001 postcode data)

    Once purchased I'm free to give (most of) it to whoever I want - guess which bit I can't give away :)

    Why, therefore, are the postcode data sets such as PAF and GridLink treated differently seems a very valid question for UK PLC to me.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    18 001 years

    Well from 2007/20008 Royal mail only make £25m.

    Wow they are not making much money then as it works out at £1388 a year.

    (Unless I have typo 2)

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The simple thing to do would be to develop an API with a key tied to an account/domain and have volume pricing. Could be done like minutes for mobiles - either buy x amount of lookups per month on a contract or pay as you go.

    Obviously upto 10 or so lookups per day should be free, to allow for personal use etc.

    Also with this system, charities and non profit orgs could get a key that allows more lookups for free

  23. JaitcH

    What a pity, Postcodes are free in Canada.

    Why doesn't someone start a web site so everyone can donate their Postcodes. Maybe a few enterprising types can purloin commercial lists of Postcodes and donate them to the common good.

    One thing, make sure the domain name ends in something other than .UK so it is out of the reach of Randy Mandy whose long-term job prospects don't look too good. :)

  24. ShaggyDoggy


    Last time I checked, the PAF was created at a time when RM was wholly public owned. That's you and me. So when do we get our payout ?

  25. Joel 1


    Isn't there already an open source mechanism for finding location? Latitude and Longitude can be converted to location very easily; postcodes can be converted to lat/long via google maps; GPS devices can output your location in lat/long.

    If locations are given in lat long, then working out how far things are from each other becomes easy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      So what?

      The spatial location of a postcode is largely irrelevant WRT the use of commercial access to the PAF. Most commercial access to the PAF is in order to resolve a postcode and house number to a full address. How would being able to resolve a postcode to an approximate map reference help with that?

      1. Joel 1

        Nearest whatever....

        It would make finding the nearest whatever to your house a lot easier to find, as well as helping for mashing up crime stats etc, using the datasets....

  26. rob hindle

    Ordnance Survey

    Neil Barnes wrote: "Blow the postcode - How about all that Ordnance Survey mapping data? Now that's something I want..."

    And you can have it (well, mapping at 1:50000) , and it must cost a lot more to maintain than PAF

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Sort of free

      Like everything else I thought you had to pay for commercial use of openspace.

  27. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    @Rob Hindle

    Thanks for that, I hadn't come across it before. But there are an awful lot of limitations, and the 'shall not download the data' is probably a killer.

  28. Simon B

    We dont need the millions - Yeees, that's why they're closing so many post offices!

    "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."

    Can have your "peanuts"?!!! And what scale of operation? It's a database!!! Pay for access, access it. mkqe millions, DONE!

    And if it's only "peanuts" then you don't need these millions, n whixh case WTF is RM doing closing so many post offices which cost much much less than peanuts to run?!!!!

  29. John 136

    Royal Mail might make only peanuts from it....

    but companies like Experian who re sell the PAF data in things like the QAS product make an enormous amount of money.

    Royal mail charge about £1k a year to use the data directly from them.... QAS charge £30k a year!

    Has anyone ever looked in to whether Royal Mail executives have any interest in the re selling companies.

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