Guest blog: address data – from jigsaw to painting

25 Jun 2015, 2:14 pm

By Simon Barlow, Head of Information Management, Geoplace

Last month I was asked to present at an international forum about how GeoPlace has assisted government in the development of a national address infrastructure.

Pulling together the presentation provided the opportunity to reflect on how all these pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle have joined together, including the realisation that there were some pieces that we didn’t know we had, or even needed, at the outset.

Around 20 years ago the landscape was one where proprietary data were maintained in proprietary software systems. Common data standards were difficult to get adopted by many communities and challenging the norm of solely using Royal Mail’s Postal Address File (PAF) for the identification of ‘place’ for service delivery was difficult to say the least.

However with the adoption of an extensible, common data standard at the outset that could accommodate multiple use cases for location, the road to a shared address infrastructure seemed less bumpy.

The data standard (BS 7666) was the UK profile of a wider ISO standard. Over time, each review of the standard ensured that it was informed by experience to accommodate the attribution important for the developing use of the data.

The development of the standard early on via a community of experts that had invested heavily in improving data sharing has made life easier.  For example, it has been relatively simple for local authorities to embrace new directives such as INSPIRE (read more) and policy around open data and the transparency agenda, including the recent announcement of the availability of the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) on a royalty free and open basis.

The other part of the jigsaw that wasn’t quite the right size in the early days was the technology.  The prevalence and capabilities of the web that we now take for granted was still in its infancy and widespread use of APIs and web mapping was hindered by the barriers of sluggish ETL processes for large volumes of data.

I remember the first wave of data from local authorities that signed up to the programme was supplied on floppy disk. GeoPlace is now investing in new tools for our data providers that will offer a range of ways to contribute to the national address infrastructure. This allows the 500+ organisations we interact with to communicate with us using technologies that are appropriate to them and offer them ways to adopt new technologies as part of their own system upgrade, allowing them to continue participating in the project.

The use of the cloud for data storage and Software as a Service (SaaS) is starting to offer some real alternatives for the use and provision of the data we manage. It has also seen take up with parts of government that need to consider a shift in the way they provide or run location-based services.

The crucial piece of the jigsaw was always the global ID for an address.  At the heart of the data standard is the UPRN. The ability to associate and accommodate a wide range of attributes and metadata in multiple languages to the same point on the ground has meant that the UPRN can both be a linking reference or the unique ID for datasets (read case studies).

Without these essential props to support the data infrastructure, improvements in services and adoption of new methodologies to deliver them in the light of economic pressures would be very difficult indeed.

The development of the national address infrastructure in Great Britain has not had an easy birth and at various points along the way it felt that the resultant image on the jigsaw puzzle was constantly changing.  However with all of parts of government now pulling together and widely using the UPRN as part of day-to-day customer interactions about location, the benefits are being realised. That jigsaw puzzle is now looking more like a rather handsome painting on the wall.

Simon Barlow is responsible for the management of GeoPlace’s address and street data and information infrastructure and customer support teams, with overall responsibility for ensuring enterprise level data governance.  Over the last 15 years he has worked with government to help develop and integrate a common address platform for use in a wide range of day to day applications.  He has also been involved in a wide range of geospatial data focused projects both in the UK and across Europe including INSPIRE and the European Address Framework assisting with data modelling, technical design and implementation.