Why should apps have to pay for the PAF database?

BY James O'Malley

20th Nov 2023 Technology

3 min read

Why should apps have to pay for the PAF database?
James O'Malley argues that open data is key to making our tech even better and explains why apps and small businesses having to pay for the PAF database of postcodes is a real problem
For the longest time, the thing that drove me most mad online was filling in forms. Why? Because I’ve got a weird name. That little apostrophe in “O’Malley” may not look like much, but it makes every payment a game of Russian roulette: When I hit submit, will I be able to complete my purchase, or will the app complain that I’ve entered an invalid character, and possibly make me fill everything in again? If your name also involves punctuation, you will know my pain well.
However, I’ve recently discovered that I’m wrong. There is something more annoying on the payment screen. And that’s the address field.

The pain of postcodes

Woman frustrated as she works on her laptop
Typically when buying something online, you’ll be asked to fill in your postcode, and the website or app will then pop up a list of addresses for you to choose from. Simple, right?
But what you might not realise is that any website or app that does that is only able to do it because they’re paying a hefty fee to the Royal Mail, for access to data from the Postcode Address File (PAF).
The PAF is basically an enormous database of every address in Britain. No names of any people, but every street number, name and postcode. And it is extremely useful if you’re, well, doing basically anything involving addresses.
For example, if your maps app wants to navigate you to a postcode, it needs the PAF database to work out what a postcode translates to. Or if a courier company wants to optimise its delivery routes, then PAF data can help it deliver more quickly. Or even something like a healthcare app might use PAF data to help figure out where your nearest doctor’s surgery is.
But the problem is that the fees quickly add up. One copy of the data costs £360—though typically you’ll want to keep it up to date, which means paying £900 every year for quarterly updates. And then if you actually want to do something clever with the data like use it on a website or app, the fees go up to at least £6,150 per year.

Open data approach to PAF

Needless to say, in my view this is a mad state of affairs, for such a basic digital building block—literally just address data—to cost so much money. And that’s why for over a decade now, a dedicated band of tech industry nerds have been campaigning for the government to take back control of the PAF—and make the data available for free.
"These fees are bad news for little guys building new tech tools"
To be absolutely clear, I can’t claim to be neutral in this fight. I strongly believe the PAF should be opened up for free. And this isn’t because I’m worried about Google Maps or DHL. It’s because I fear that these restrictive fees are bad news for the little guys: The bedroom coders and small companies that are building innovative tech tools. Because if anyone who wants to launch an app that uses PAF data has to pay thousands of pounds up front, then it is effectively a huge tax on innovation.
And I think there’s a really strong case for a more "open data" approach, as evidenced by the amazing transport apps we have today. For example, one of my favourite apps is CityMapper, which helps you get around big cities like London. On the app, it will help work out the quickest way to your destination by looking at real time data from Trains, the Tube and buses. And the only reason it is possible is because the transport agencies share things like train timetables freely – and that they’re not locked behind an expensive fee.

The possibilities from freely available address data

Person using their phone apps while wearing gloves
This brings me back to the current tragedy of the PAF. It makes me sad to imagine all of the apps and services that don’t exist but could, because of the prohibitively high licensing fees.
For example, if address data were more freely available, perhaps someone would make the app I want most in the world: Something that will remind me that it’s bin night—and what coloured bins I need to take out, based on my address.
But this is just one tiny example. There are bedroom coders across the country who could be set loose on the PAF to build and innovate. We just need to set the PAF free to make it happen!

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