As the use of data in business, charities and homes grows, it's more and more obvious that geospatial information is uniquely important. Almost every piece of data analysis needs to use geospatial data — whether it's finding the location of homes, to enable media companies to tailor local news to individuals; shops, to enable retailers to situate their new branches; or office blocks, to help businesses find appropriate space.
The UK has recognised the value of geospatial information for a long time. The Ordnance Survey was set up to provide high quality mapping. The Royal Mail has the maintenance of the Postcode Address File as part of its legal duties. But these requirements were put in place in a pre-digital age. Our needs and capabilities are different now.
Data is becoming democratised as storage, processing and analysis capabilities increase. Companies, NGOs and individuals are increasingly capable of, and demand to be able to, use geospatial data alongside other data in performing their own analyses to answer their own questions. Enabling free use of data can help organisations and individuals to make better decisions, supporting more effective economic activity and healthier and happier lifestyles.
But in the UK, access to and use of geospatial information is restricted. These restrictions come in two forms. First, there are the licensing terms and conditions which restrict the ways in which geospatial data can be used, restricting the data, products and services that companies can create. Second, there is the cost of access; a particular problem when a product needs to redistribute an address database (say) to work effectively.
The UK needs to take bold strategic steps, like those taken in Denmark, to making available geospatial information as open data for the benefit of society as a whole. In the meantime, OpenStreetMap has demonstrated the power of harnessing the crowd to collaborative create maps and geospatial data, and the kinds of tools and novel products that can grow from unrestrictive licences and low costs. Our new effort, Open Addresses, concentrates on harnessing that same collaborative approach to create and made available an open address database.
Open Addresses is a project funded from the Release of Data Fund via the Cabinet Office, approved by the Public Sector Transparency Board following recommendation by the Open Data User Group. It aims to bring together information about the places where we live, work and go about our daily lives, and provide that data in a form that everyone can benefit from.
Following a Discovery Phase run by the Open Data Institute, the project is now being run by a dedicated company — Open Addresses Ltd. The Alpha phase of development will create an initial open and accessible database from existing open data sets, and ends at the end of November. The Beta phase, which we aim to complete by the end of March 2015, will incorporate facilities for crowd-sourcing addresses, as well as APIs for more sophisticated queries.
About the author
Jeni Tennison is the Technical Director of the Open Data Institute. She originally trained as a psychologist and knowledge engineer, gaining a PhD in collaborative ontology development from the University of Nottingham. She went on to work as an independent consultant and practitioner, specialising in open data publishing and consumption, including XML, JSON and linked data APIs, before joining the Open Data Institute in 2012. She was awarded an OBE for services to technology and open data in the 2014 New Year Honours.
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