back to article One map to rule them all: UK's Ordnance Survey rolls out its Data Hub and the juicy API goodness that lies therein

UK map boffins at the Ordnance Survey (OS) have opened up its shiny new Data Hub, replete with APIs and access to MasterMap data. The move comes a fortnight after the UK Cabinet Office's Geospatial Commission unveiled a strategy to provide the country with a "coherent national location data framework" by 2025. Unlocking the …

  1. Blitheringeejit

    Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

    Since the Royal Mail was privatised and became just another delivery company, I believe that no-one holds a definitive list of address and postcode data for the UK. Does this mean that the OS is now going to take on that role?

    The use of lots of different ("competing"!) address databases causes confusion, and occupants of new-build properties are sometimes unable to receive goods by post, or even sign up for utility contracts, because their address doesn't yet exist on the database used by the supplier or carrier. It would be nice if some official gummint-backed organisation could take on the job of providing an official, definitive address database, with a public API or endpoint. The OS is well set up to do this, as (I believe) it maintains the most up-to-date records of what's actually happening on the ground.

    1. John H Woods Silver badge

      Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

      Have you seen What 3 Words?

      1. Mark #255

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Ugh. Proprietary product with good marketing.

        Meanwhile, OS Opendata is on a very encouraging trajectory.

        1. SkippyBing

          Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

          Agree, my problem with What 3 Words is I can't use it without an app, which is fine right up until I'm in some sort of emergency situation and don't have access to the internet. Or even just walking in the countryside with patchy data.

          Still alright for parcel deliveries if using an address is too old hat.

          1. Lee D Silver badge

            Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

            My problem with W3W is that even if you remember the three words but put them in the wrong order, you end up on the other side of the planet if you're lucky.

            And if you mis-remember the words, you end up somewhere entirely random.

            At least with a postcode if you misremember (or the equipment misreads) "W1" as "W2", it stands a chance of still being delivered. With W3W it could be sent ANYWHERE in the country (if you're lucky).

            W3W was a great idea but mixing up the words used for adjacent locations, essentially at random, was a stupid idea. "cat egg banana" should be somewhere near "cat egg band" and maybe even "bat egg banana".

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

              Lee D "W3W was a great idea but mixing up the words used for adjacent locations, essentially at random, was a stupid idea. "cat egg banana" should be somewhere near "cat egg band" and maybe even "bat egg banana"."

              I hear what you're saying but the whole point is that if you get the worlds slightly wrong, it's absolutely obvious. They didn't assign them at random: more like the exact opposite of what you have suggested, so that close verbal matches are so geographically distant they are less easy to confuse.

              That isn't the case with grid refs, which already satisfy your requirement to have similar addresses adjacent.

              1. Lee D Silver badge

                Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

                I'd really rather myself (or my courier/parcel) be "lost" within a few hundred metres of my destination because we confused some similar-sounding words than quite literally be unable to determine where on the planet it should have gone without any accuracy at all.

                Close verbal matches isn't the problem (you just eliminate "bat" and don't include it or any rhyming word in the system). It's that there's no *order*. "band" and "banana" should be close together, but sound completely unique.

                And as soon as we get into such things, then grid references make far more sense for all purposes.

                To be honest, you can pretty much text anyone a GPS lat/lon now and they can usually click on it and load it in Google Maps, or a satnav app. Why we needed an extraneous system to "simplify" that in three out of 40,000 possible words (to cover the ocean), each of which is 5+ characters long, I can't fathom.

                It's like domain names and IPs. Nobody needs to type in a domain themselves nowadays, or use an IP address. You just send each other a contact detail with the info and let the computers do the work for you. That's kind of their purpose.

                Introducing non-ubiquitous, app-requiring, proprietary formats of any kind to add to that confusion is just silly.

                Have literally never sent, received, needed or even seen a real-world use of W3W. But I can text my dad a lat/lon and my GPS tracker sends me a Google Maps link with the same info (even inside a .kml if it's live-tracing), and all my favourites on my satnav are shared to the cloud, and all my contacts on my phone have their address so I can just navigate to them if necessary.

                It's yet-another-service that the people you want to have it just won't have.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

              "[...] is that even if you remember the three words but put them in the wrong order, [...]"

              Reminds me of a large housing estate in Scotland. People would remember the apparently significant first part of a street name for their destination. On arrival they found that many of the estate's streets had that first name - permed with apparently all possible variants of "Street", "Road", "Lane", Path", Way"........

          2. jh27

            Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

            I pretty sure you don't need an Internet connection to use What 3 Words, it downloads it database when you first use the app (which indexes GPS locations to 3 words).

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

              But you need an internet connection to download the app. If you're going to download an app anyway then use one that provides a grid reference and can be understood by anyone with a basic paper map or every emergency service going.

              W3W just makes just adds extra noise to the mix in the UK. Sure, it has its uses in the middle of a non-gridded system where GPS co-ords can get cumbersome and hard to remember or communicate over radio.But even then there is often better ways.

              However we don't want to become reliant on a single proprietary system where the only aim is to get everyone embedded in their system to charge money and licence fees for it (similar to postcode address lookups) when there is a free, universally used format available that every mapping system can use.

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

        3. John H Woods Silver badge

          re: proprietary product

          Sure W3W is proprietary, but the general principle of being able to convert numerical grid references to words is not proprietary, whatever W3W think (and I'm no fan of their litigious approach). You don't really need maps at all for an address database, you just need a coordinate system.

          OS already has a decent coordinate system, AAnnnnnn which gives you a 100x100m box. Maybe we shoud see if there is some way of adding a couple of numbers to a postcode to make it more precise?

          I know the biggest outcode is IV27, over 3600km² . I don't know about the size of the incodes (although I know they only contain 70 actual letterboxes) so, if all had an official number (I suspect they don't), that number modulo 70 would tie to an actual letterbox.

          Out in the country, though, it's still problematic. UK is about 250000km² so you need to address about 25 billion 10m² boxes. Maybe 8 digit case-insensitive alphanumerics (excluding 1,0,I,O) would do? If we factored enormous postcodes like IV27 we could maybe get down to Outcode + 4 alphanumerics?

          1. AMBxx Silver badge

            Re: re: proprietary product

            Postcodes are for the convenience of the Royal Mail, nothing much to do with finding where you want to go.

            My current postcode is for just 3 houses - great for navigation.

            If you have a long street, odd numbers one side, even the other, chances are there'll be just 2 postcodes - one for each side. If the numbers go sequentially in one direction, then back the other, there'll be just one postcode.

            Not forgetting that the rest of the world have their own systems for both postcodes and grid references.

          2. SkippyBing

            Re: re: proprietary product

            OS can go better than 100x100m boxes, you just use AAnnnnnnnn to get 10x10m boxes.

            Theoretically you could go further than that, but they do at least provide printed maps at scales where that's workable.

          3. Korev Silver badge

            Re: re: proprietary product

            > OS already has a decent coordinate system, AAnnnnnn which gives you a 100x100m box. Maybe we shoud see if there is some way of adding a couple of numbers to a postcode to make it more precise?

            You can already pop the house number on and Postman Pat can deliver to it.

            Having moved to a country with a much less granular postcode system, I kind of miss the UK's postcodes for navigating.

          4. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: re: proprietary product

            "Maybe we shoud see if there is some way of adding a couple of numbers to a postcode to make it more precise?"

            In my experience the UK post codes are unique to one street or section of a street. So the post code plus the residence's number is exact - even if the human then misdelivers to the wrong number.

      2. GreggS

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        or this;

        https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/28/21272954/google-maps-plus-code-geolocation-digital-address-six-digit

      3. CliveS
        Devil

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Propriety, patented, private with no open use. Run by a private company with a fondness for take-down requests and deleting critical comments. No thanks.

      4. Alex_A

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Plus Codes (https://plus.codes/) would be a better fit, imo

        +Open-sourced

        +Works offline

        bonus - already integrated into Google Maps and hence available to 1bn+ users

        https://www.blog.google/products/maps/an-address-for-everywhere-plus-codes/

        1. Lee D Silver badge

          Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

          So now you have two standards.

          Three if you count GPS (accurate to within 1m for most phones nowadays).

          Four if you include OS map co-ordinate (way good enough for mail delivery).

          XKCD will tell you the next step:

          https://xkcd.com/927/

          1. TDog

            Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

            I don't even have to go to the link to remember it. So that is a new standard standard for XKCD yes?

      5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        "Have you seen What 3 Words?"

        I've seen that the link you gave doesn't display anything without opening up to a load of Javascript and thus fails my first test for any website: must at least be able to say what it's about with the most basic of browsing facilities.

        Having got past that AFAIK it's just a geographical coordinate system. Postal addresses are more than that. They have to deal with multiple addresses at the same location such as Flat 1 or 1a Acacia Ave etc.

      6. To Mars in Man Bras!
        Facepalm

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Oh god. After all this time, are people still suggesting that lunacy as a good idea?

        https://stiobhart.net/2016-01-15-stupidest-idea-ever

      7. Chris Hills

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        It is unsuitable for addresses as it does not work with vertical addresses (such as in a block of flats).

    2. Robert Grant Silver badge

      Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

      I wonder if postcodes.io might add this as a backend.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

      Royal Mail still manage a definitive list of PostCodes - that hasn't changed. As they licence the data on commercial terms "competing" databases aren't really "competitors" - just people using out of date/out of licence databases or choosing to use the various open alternatives - which can be useful and functional but don't give the resolution and precision of the Post Office product. One might argue that the OS 'know' where the houses are - but then the Post Office 'knows' which of them have letter boxes!

      The whys and wherefores of the database being a commercially licenced product are a separate issue - but like everything - someone has to pay - OS could take it on, but if it's fully open then you are assuming that costs will be borne by tax payers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Are you sure that you haven't mixed up two separate companies there? I thought that the Royal Mail delivered letters, whereas the Post Office prosecuted their employees and had them sent to prison on the basis of false information from their own systems. Anything else the Post Office does is of limited interest to me, as I will be using alternatives for the foreseeable future. They used to be part of the same state-owned company, but got separated out.

        I think it's the Royal Mail who maintain the postcode database.

      2. Boothy Silver badge

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        Just to be clear: Post Office =/= Royal Mail

        The two companies have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. (although before the 90s they were both part of the GPO).

        Currently we have:

        Post Office Ltd: A UK state owned private company, founded in 1986.

        Royal Mail: This is a brand/trading name under Royal Mail Group plc, which is itself a public limited company as of ~2014.

        (ps: RMG also own the Parcelforce Worldwide brand).

        Regarding Post Codes... You're correct, here's a few more details..

        UK Post Codes are managed by Royal Mails PAF service (Postcode Address File).

        PAF is the single mast.. erm, single official source of all UK Post Codes.

        Anyone else selling or using Post Code related services (such as entering a postcode on a web site, that then allows you to pick your specific address), either gets the list directly from PAF themselves, or via a 3rd party supplier that in turn gets it from PAF. Any organisation who doesn't get it ultimately from PAF (such as crowd sourced datasets), is unlikely to be 100% accurate, or they'll at least be a bit behind on their info compared to PAF itself.

        One of the main issues with subscribers to PAF services (or also 3rd party providers), is this is usually a subscription based service, and unless things have changed recently, how much you pay RM, changes how often you can update your local PAF db. Some organisations might only update once a year, so it can take new addresses quite a while to show up in an application/service. Some places might decide to cut costs, and cancel their sub, so end up getting out-of-date quite quickly.

        Disclaimer: I used to work for RMG in the late 90s and early 2000s, and had quite a few dealings with PAF related services both internally, and with 3rd parties.

        1. Boothy Silver badge

          Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

          Just realised my own statement "The two companies have nothing whatsoever to do with each other." isn't strictly accurate, as they do obviously have a business relationship, i.e. you can use RM services in a PO etc. I just meant the two companies themselves are independent entities.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        "[...] but then the Post Office 'knows' which of them have letter boxes!"

        The Royal Mail still manage to push single letters through the wrong letter boxes. They are in two house doors 6 metres apart on the same wall - both with 100mm high numerals indicating they are "49" and "51" respectively.

    4. Falmor

      Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

      The official address database is maintained by GeoPlace, this is a public sector company jointly owned by the Local Government Association and Ordnance Survey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Land_and_Property_Gazetteer

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

        The Geoplace website is just about as bad as the W3W one, differing only in having fallen victim to someone from the crayon dept. who thinks that an animation of the site's name is far more useful than presenting information.

    5. TimGJ

      Re: Could this become the official UK postcode and address database?

      Well certainly three or four years ago there was a very good OS product called AddressBase Plus which was managed by a combination of Royal Mail (for mapping of postcodes and delivery points) and various local authorities. The idea was that it held details of every structure (house, bus stop...) in the UK for use by people like the emergency services.

      It's a massive data set, but very high quality.

      Back then it didn't have elevation data so to get the heights of things we used to overlay the Environment Agency's LiDAR dat. It would appear that elevation data is now included.

      I guess the data used in the AddressBase product is what is used to drive the new API.

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        AddressBase

        AddressBase Premium is four dimensional. It has records of properties that existed in the past.

        I think they get the spatial data from local government databases. So apparently, I think I heard or read in Private Eye or just imagined it, Dominic Cummings' naughty holiday was literally off the grid in a farm cottage that local government wasn't told about. Probably no council tax either, tee hee.

        When I looked at AddressBase, a few addresses from Royal Mail were attached to the wrong council property record - usually not too far out, you'd have a row of houses with the numbers off by one. Or a building with two Flat 5 and no Flat 1. It doesn't matter, unless it's yours, then it bloody does. And somebody knocked down number 11 Empirical Crescent and built a smaller modern number 11 and an 11A, but in AB Premium, Royal Mail address number 11 was retained by the original, now non-existent building. I had to write to someone in 2015 to get that fixed. :-)

  2. MrNigel

    Email postcodes

    Slightly off topic, but I remember being in a meeting back in the early 90's where the GPO/PO/Royal Mail were considering giving every household an email address based on their postcode along the lines of housenumber.postcode@domain.co.uk. I think this was dropped because it didn't identify individuals, just a property. It was the early 90's thinking, you know - blue skies, out of the box, paperless office etc etc.............

  3. Richard Cranium

    Navigation

    Eratosthenes proposed a global coordinate system 2300 years ago, that was flawed but in the next few centuries it evolved into the Latitude & Longitude system much as it exists today after ongoing important refinements like moving the prime meridian to its rightful place ;-)

    All the other systems are inferior and only cause to confuse. They do have niche applications but are there really any "better" than Latitude & Longitude?. My mapping app gives locations to a very high level of numeric detail, W 0.12456246 N 51.500661 but it's fine to do some rounding so W 0.1246 N 51.501 gets me on the other side of the road to my intended destination, I think I should be able to spot the Houses of Parliament clock tower from there.

    The issue I have is not postal addresses but getting people to meet up at a specified location to go for a walk in the countryside.

    In one instance I provided a screen-grab of OS map and Google map, turn by turn directions, UK NGR and Latitude/Longitude coordinates, all carefully double checked and taking them to a parking spot on a minor road. Two of a group of ten didn't turn up, they were a mile away on a main road.

    W3W is one of those things that sounds like a good idea until you think it through as discussed above. Useless for me because too few people have heard of it and far fewer have the app. I deleted it.

    Distressingly few people understand UK national grid references, some seem to be unaware the the two letters are relevant and will omit them. (And of course they are UK only).

    Most sat-navs sold in UK understand UK postcodes as do users but they are hopeless in areas of low population.

    I understand some UK sat-navs can take UK NGR (mine can't)

    I think most satnavs can take Latitude/Longitude coordinates but that option may be deeply buried and many users seem not to understand or are afraid to use Latitude/Longitude. A friend with a BMW proprietary built in satnav is adamant he can't use Latitude/Longitude (but then he's got a hand-held Garmin GPS device he cant work out how to use either).

    Mobile phone navigation apps vary in their location specification requirements.

    With dedicated GPS devices Latitude/Longitude coordinates are usually fine except for the variations in how those coordinates are specified. Is it 10 degrees West or 350 degrees or -10 degrees? It is degrees, minutes, seconds or decimal, Is it UGM WTS 84 International or UTM WGS 84 NMEA. And although those devices may have good quality maps, they don't work like satnavs providing turn by turn navigation (sending a GPX route file would be an option if the recipients knew what to do with it.

  4. hazard

    Oh no, not again...

    Several days have passed since these discussions began.

    I do tend to agree with John H Woods and am grateful for Boothy's explanation also.

    This whole subject takes me back to a 1970s discussion about Computer Time and Time. One wonders just how many discussions have been ongoing since.

    It's important that the OS keeps systems and data updated, because, as a UK Government Agency, they have to sell it. That doesn't make it the license holder or Fat Controller.

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