The postcode stranglehold and hyperlocals

Are postcodes useful to journalists? If you belong in the new school of thought which says journalism is hyperlocal, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, then the answer is yes, very.

Northcliffe’s experiments in hyperlocal journalism have been less about creating pure news portals and more about community services. If you look at any of its outlets – e.g. Berkhamsted People – its tagline is ‘Your place. Your people’. The focus being on community-driven news. Surely then, it makes sense for any new hyperlocal venture to embrace as many community enhancing tools as possible and collect them all in one place. Good UK examples are the websites created by MySociety (like FixMyStreet) and Ernest Marples Ltd (like the local planning alerts service). These sites make use of the Royal Mail’s postcode database to provide users with information about what’s happening around them – whether it’s a new building development or what your nearest pharmacy is. Useful information delivered to you, where previously you had to squint at that rain-drenched bit of paper pinned to the lamppost outside no. 20 to find out that they’d be building that new conservatory for the next six months….

Except that this all relies on postcode data….which is subject to copyright and therefore can’t be used by any Tom, Dick or Harry, even if it’s for useful community purposes. If you want to use the postcode database, you have to pay royalties to Royal Mail. This is how sat nav systems work.This means that low-cost, open ventures run by community driven entrepreneurs like those behind Ernest Marples Ltd., can’t use postcode data without getting nasty copyright infringement notifications from Royal Mail. Not having the means to challenge Royal Mail, Ernest Marples Ltd has ceased to provide any of its postcode-based services or API’s. So no pretty integrated tools for hyperlocal journalists.

The campaign against this stranglehold argues that Royal Mail (and indeed the Ordnance Survey which charges similar royalties for mapping information) are funded by the tax-payer. Therefore the tax-payer should have access to the information held by these companies. Hearteningly, Tom Watson MP has put forward an Early Day Motion:

That this House notes with concern the attempts of Royal Mail to restrict access to the postcode database for not-for-profit web services; further notes with alarm that this heavy-handed approach has led to not-for-profit websites which seek to provide essential services to the public being left unable to function; and calls on the Government to ensure that the database is made freely available to anyone for not-for-profit use, thus enabling citizen-focused projects to flourish and innovate.

Why not write to your MP and get them to sign it?


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