No Telling How Ernest Marples Freed the UK Postal Code

Adam DuVander
Aug. 19 2009, 01:58AM EDT

A community-minded API has a politcal message for the UK's Royal Mail: open up the postal code database. ErnestMarples.com is named after the former postmaster general who apparently first oversaw the introduction of the postal code in the UK.

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The free API returns address-level geographic coordinates for full postal codes, such as SW1A 1AA (Buckingham Palace). To access similar data from the Royal Mail costs at least 1000 pounds ($1600 USD) per year. Due to the many licensees, the British government takes in over 18 million pounds ($30 million) annually, according to The Guardian.

Harry Metcalfe, one of the API's creators, explains why he believes the service is necessary:

"Lots of the most useful services... have no choice but to use whatever data they can find on the web — something which, among other things, is very inconvenient. We decided to make it easier, and take that step out of the process. We do the tricky bit — sniffing the data out from the corners of the web — and pass it back to as structured information that developers can use to create sites that make people's lives easier and better."

But if the API is supplying data that costs money, the Royal Mail is bound to be upset, right? The operators of the site claim to be working in a grey area. In an email, Metcalfe said there is no database and that the site does not cache anything. As for where the data comes from, that is not clear and Metcalfe isn't telling.

Since the Royal Mail keeps the postal codes locked down, it's logical to expect that ErnestMarples.com data trickles down from one or more subscriber. The data may be scraped from unsuspecting sites that expose the lookup as part of another service.

Web developer Stuart Harrison suggests the Royal Mail will let the API slide as long as it doesn't get too popular:

"They're not losing any revenue by sites of this nature doing this because the sites couldn’t afford to pay for the postcode database anyway. Besides, although the Royal Mail is effectively a private enterprise, the major shareholder is still the government, and I can't see them risking the bad publicity that would be caused by being heavy-handed and taking the site down."

The UK was very much a leader in open data with last year's Show Us A Better Way contest, so on one hand it's surprising. On the other, giving up a revenue stream this large is a hard case to make. Perhaps the decision will be some middle ground, such as allowing non-commercial use, as is the case with many APIs.

Metcalfe is clear with the outcome he wants: "The Government should pay to maintain the data and then release it as public sector information under the PSI Click-Use licence."

Adam DuVander Hi! I'm Developer Communications Director for SendGrid and former Executive Editor of ProgrammableWeb. I currently serve as a Contributing Editor. If you have API news, or are interested in writing for ProgrammableWeb, please contact editor@programmableweb.com Though I'm a fan of anything API-related, my particular interest is in mapping. I've published a how-to book, Map Scripting 101, to get anyone started making maps on websites. In a not-so-distant past life I wrote for Wired and Webmonkey.

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Yup, free for non-commercial use is definitely the way forward. As I stated in my blog (which you so kindly quoted - thanks for that :) ) it would make absolutely no sense to shut this service down if only non-commercial users are making use of it.

As there's no way to regulate this, then a click use license would be the way forward. I just hope that if it happens, the API is as easy to use as the current one.

Whatever's going on, the database they have doesn't cover Northern Ireland, so the service technically doesn't cover all of the UK.

I'm guessing this means they aren't sourcing the data from the Royal Mail by proxy either.

[...] No Telling How Ernest Marples Freed the UK Postal CodeIn an email, Metcalfe said there is no database and that the site does not cache anything. As for where the data comes from, that is not clear and Metcalfe isn&#8217;t telling. [...]