Can NAG put UK on the map where others failed?
By James Lawson
10 Aug 2011: For around 15 years, central government has been hankering after a definitive UK geo-referenced data set for public sector use. First there was the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG), then came the National Spatial Addressing Infrastructure (NSAI). Both of those schemes hit the buffers in no uncertain fashion, and now we have the National Address Gazetteer (NAG). Can NAG succeed where the others failed – and will it have any place in commercial applications?
First, some history. Back in the late 90s, Intelligent Addressing was set up as the private sector partner of the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA, now LG Improvement and Development) to build the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG). This would combine all the address and other information from the local gazetteers (LLPGs) built by local authorities over the previous few years.
The idea was that all local authorities would have free access to the NLPG, so saving money over commercial products and creating a standard framework for exchanging geo-referenced data. The file could be sold for commercial use too.
The NLPG incorporated a host of public sector sources as well as PAF (Postcode Address File) within the OS Address Layer 2 (MMAL2) file used (initially) as the base reference file. Sadly, those contributing data could not agree licence terms that they felt would safeguard their intellectual property – so the NLPG could not be sold commercially or used by central government without paying large fees. For example, the OS saw the NLPG as a competitor to MMAL2 and insisted that NLPG users buy a full licence from them; contributing public-sector data owners took a similar approach to commercial licensing.
Only local authorities were able use the NLPG free at the point of use under the Mapping Services Agreement brokered by IDeA. The NLPG remained bogged down in a years-long licensing dispute which is only now being properly resolved.
“The NLPG was a disaster from the start, poorly specified and badly managed with too many vested interests,” comments Phil Good, Managing Director of Hopewiser. “It has become the domain of the public servant with absolutely no value to the commercial world.”
Next came the NSAI. Announced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in May 2005, this ambitious scheme aimed to combine a host of files, including the Postcode Address File (PAF), AddressPoint, LLPGs, the NLPG, property valuation data and more besides. This stumbled and fell almost immediately on the same issue: who would own the IP in the final NSAI file? No one knew, and the NSAI quietly curled up and died.
Fast forward to today and finally there is real progress. Driven by the need to make significant public sector cost savings, central government stepped in to break the logjam. Intelligent Addressing was bought out by Geoplace, a joint venture LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) between OS and the Local Government Association.
And so, after a busy period of data matching and manipulation at Geoplace, we have the National Address Gazetteer (NAG). The NAG combines more than 150 million source records, bringing LLPGs together with the PAF, the OS’s MMAL2 and the Valuations Office Agency’s (VOA) property rating data.
“The NAG is a step in the right direction in producing a file we would all like to have,” says Terry Hiles, Managing Director of Capscan. “It’s taken a lot of external pressure to get it to happen.”
The IP and licensing hurdles that tripped up previous initiatives look to have been surmounted this time. Following the successful introduction of the One Scotland Mapping Agreement (OSMA) in 2009, the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA) came into effect in April 2011 in England and Wales. This allows around 800 public sector bodies and their contractors to make free use of data derived from OS MasterMap – though restrictions remain on how data derived from the original OS files can be used.
Under the PSMA, the NAG file will be licensed by the OS and delivered free of charge across the whole of the public sector (central government, agencies, local authorities and their contractors), except for PAF charges which currently still apply to all users. These fees would disappear under the proposed PAF public sector licence which would make PAF free at the point of delivery for public sector users in exchange for a single central payment to the Royal Mail’s Address Management Unit from the Department of Communities and Local Government.
The latest report from the PAF Advisory Board states that negotiations are continuing with no end in sight. The same tardiness doesn’t apply to NAG, which Geoplace’s managing director Richard Mason says is on track for release this Autumn.
“All those past IP issues have now gone away,” he says. “The IP of NAG is 100% publically owned and PAF is licensed from Royal Mail under a standard agreement.”
Geoplace has already released sample data and a draft specification to general approval. This first release will be for England and Wales only. Geoplace is working with the Improvement Service Scotland to incorporate their data but as yet, no agreements have been signed.
“Intelligent Addressing did a great job getting the NLPG up and running and made a start in reducing the latency of the information,” says Phil Rothwell, Sales and Marketing Director at Postcode Anywhere, which will be offering the file to its clients. “However, combining the separate LLPGs into a single standardised dataset while augmenting it with MMAL2 is a mammoth task. Our expectation is that the NAG will be a big step forward this year, but there will be more work to do.”
The NAG sold under the PSMA looks like a good deal for public sector data users. They can now access consistent data sets at low prices and share them with suppliers and other partners. If only the same were true for commercial users.
“Our business started out with public sector customers and the NAG is something we are looking at for them,” says Emma Gooderham, managing director at Postcoder. “We’re still waiting for commercial pricing, but I think there will be a public and private sector divide in that respect. I don’t think there will be a huge demand.”
Like its antecedents, the NAG brings together data from base files already in use by the commercial sector. The question is: does it add anything on top of the individual files or does it simply duplicate them at the same or greater cost – and so become commercially irrelevant?
“Alternative reference files always seem to have an element of PAF within them,” notes Hiles. “It’s great that they are bringing together multiple data sets, but the shortcomings of the individual data sets will still be there.”
For addressing and related business applications, the PAF remains the only reference file employed by the vast majority of users with the Postzon file usually sufficing where a geocoded postcode is needed. Postzon links postcodes to grid references (to within 100m of the postcode’s centroid), NHS Health Authority codes and Local Authority Ward information.
“We haven’t seen any costing structure or any other information on the file, and it's not at all clear how a national address gazetteer would fit in with Royal Mail's other products,” says Damian Morris, European Sales Director at Satori Software. “We're not going to rule out using it in future, but the PAF and Postzon files are perfectly sufficient for our needs at the moment.”
According to Mason, “OS is finalising pricing but it will be very similar to pricing for its existing spatial products.” When it comes to advantages over using PAF and Postzon, he points to the faster updating of deliverable and non-deliverable locations within the NAG via LLPG updates – though any addresses less than three or four months old will use UPRNs (Unique Property Reference Number) added by local authorities rather than postcodes which are added via Royal Mail’s PAF. There’s also plenty of multiple-occupancy data available not held in PAF.
“There’s at least a million extra flats over PAF,” Mason says. He also notes the large number of non-deliverable locations pulled from LLPG and MMAL2 sources as well as VOA data that offers council tax valuation data for all UK domestic and business properties.
“These are of interest to many businesses like utilities and insurance companies,” he says. “The match rate to the NDR (Non-Domestic Rates) file from NAG is over 85% and we have a couple of insurance companies that are very excited about that. For users like utilities, the NAG gives extra precision over PAF and Postzon, but we’re not going to replace PAF.”
“The NAG will be useful to organisations that need the locations of unaddressable objects, like the Fire Service,” agrees Gooderham. “The more coordinates they can have the better.”
Hopewiser’s Phil Good takes issue with NAG’s pricing which he sees as simply continuing a tradition of charging high prices to access data sets built using public money. OS AddressPoint and Address Layer2 files “depended upon PAF data to ensure that the addresses held made sense to users,” he says.
According to Good, the extra PAF charges on top of stiff OS licence fees made those files even less attractive for potential buyers and has allowed, “others competing data providers to begin to dominate these markets”.
“Renaming the NLPG to make it more acceptable will not alter this which makes the exercise seem fruitless and ill conceived,” he says. “This is public domain data, developed by funding through the public purse and which should be used to improve services – not as just another levy on commerce.”
Making PAF free of charge has been a long-standing demand of many commercial users who argue that the delivery savings made from more accurate postcoding would be vastly more than the current PAF licence income. Indeed the PSMA and the upcoming Public Sector PAF licence may just be the start of a trend to lower-priced or even free datasets owned by Government agencies.
The Cabinet Office announced in January this year that the Government aims to establish a Public Data Corporation (PDC) in the near future with the aim of making “more data free at the point of use”. There’s some international momentum too. In January, the Dutch government ended its agreement with TNT, breaking the (previously state-owned) company’s monopoly on the Dutch equivalent of the PAF.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude stated, “At present many state agencies face a conflict between maximising revenues from the sale of data and making the data freely available to be exploited for social and economic gain. Creating the PDC will enable the conflicts at the least to be managed consistently with a view to opening up access, and at best to be eliminated.”
A better approach
All concerned with Geoplace and the NAG should be congratulated for building a single UK mapping file. Postcode Anywhere’s Rothwell describes the combination of the NAG and the PSMA as, “nothing short of a revolution in public sector addressing and mapping”.
Given its pricing model and rich crop of merged information at a detailed level of geography, NAG will be useful for niche users in utilities and property insurance. But until there’s a bricks-and-mortar pricing review of publically-owned data, NAG will remain irrelevant for 99% of commercial users.
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