The reign of Edward II saw the development of the first postal system. Handwritten notes were added to letters that gave instructions to messengers.
The earliest known example simply said “Haste. Post haste”.
Over the next 200 years, these notes became more detailed instructions about who to deliver the message to, and where to find them. By the mid-15th century, the word ‘address’ had new meanings - it was a location and something written on the outside of an envelope.
But sending mail was expensive, and the number of letters very small, until Charles I created the national postal service in 1635 - for the first time, anyone could send and receive mail. And suddenly everyone needed an address.
So by the time of the first census in 1801, the UK had the comprehensive address system of street names and numbers that we recognise today.
Addresses are now part of our lives, our culture and our history. We know that the Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane. We know who lived at 221b Baker Street and are familiar with the significance of 10 Downing Street.
I have a personal interest and connection to addressing and its importance.
My first job was in my family’s software company, which wrote software to put postcodes on addresses, and helped you find an address from a postcode. I have an intimate knowledge of the Postcode Address File. I can vividly remember loading magnetic tape reels of address data into the computer to be processed. My first job involved putting postcodes on addresses and fixing the Y2K bug in COBOL.
But times have changed. I’ve changed career, and addresses are big data, not on big rolls of tape.
In government we are committed to open data and have demonstrated its value in the now 24,000 datasets published as open data.
This is a revolution in attitude and has sprung a revolution in services, improving the lives of the citizens we serve.
And addresses are the bedrock of our nation’s data infrastructure, of our digital economy. It is extremely important that a modern, digital economy has access to high quality, precise and open address data.
High quality, precise, and open. Let me go through these in turn.
I want to talk first about high quality address data.
Addresses are invaluable to our economy and our public services. Addresses help make sure that emergency services get to our door as quickly as possible; addresses help confirm our identity, they help us to access products and services.
It is true that everything happens somewhere, and as a result, high quality address data is fundamental. And this is the reason why I am so excited to be here today.
Because it is the people in this room that ensure we have high quality address data.
I want to pay tribute to the work local authorities do in creating accurate addresses across Britain through the role of the Local Land and Property Gazetteer Custodian, which is invaluable to the process of querying and matching addresses - driving up accuracy and improving the frequency of updates.
And any data cannot be high quality unless it is definitive. We cannot have different versions of the truth. I am extremely glad that we have a National Address Gazetteer and Geoplace to collaborate across local government, Ordnance Survey and the wider public sector.
And I have to say this: we have barely scratched the surface of the potential of this data.
The challenge and the opportunity that lies ahead is to ensure that high quality, precise address data anchors the UK’s digital economy and the transformation of our public services, and is used to improve the lines of the citizens we serve.
Precise address data
That brings me to my second point: precision.
In the past, address data primarily served local needs. Addresses connected people and place. The local postie knew exactly where the letterbox was, so could handle a bit of imprecision.
But in the last few decades, the uses of addresses have expanded exponentially. Addresses are not just for mail: addresses help connect us to the digital world.
We rightly demand immediate access to location-based services through our phones.
We expect to have our journey to work instantly mapped, and expect an Uber to find our exact address, not arrive halfway down the street. And for the millions who have ever put a rural postcode into a sat nav and ended up in the middle of nowhere, they know the importance of precision.
For digital services, too, to verify your identity, register to vote, get a driving licence, buy broadband, the uses of addresses are countless, from our emergency services, welfare provision, social care, council tax charging, and fraud prevention. The address is the point of reference that anchors people throughout these services and across geographical boundaries.
So precision is vitally and increasingly important. And this brings me to the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). Just as modern 21st century technology has replaced the magnetic tape reels of the past, we now have new needs and new uses for addresses that cannot be met with imprecise identifiers.
The UPRN is the jewel at the heart of the addressing system. It links address data across a diverse range of systems and services. The UPRN facilitates greater accuracy and immediate data sharing and matching - delivering better services and better outcomes for citizens.
In short, it links an address in human form to a specific place on this earth. The name of a place in the language of Shakespeare to the longitude and latitude that can drop a package on your doorstep.
And as we look to the future - if we want to live in smarter cities and smarter homes then we need to exploit the benefits of precise interconnected data. It is difficult to imagine a world of driverless cars, of drone delivery, and truly integrated public services, without realising the benefits of high quality, precise data.
The case for ensuring we have accurate and precise address data has never been so acute. And it is the UPRN that provides the precision that 21st century users demand.
Open address data
So third I want to talk about openness. If we make things open, we make things better.
Since 2010, the UK has led the world on open data. Just last week it was confirmed that yet again we are ranked first in the world on the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer.
On data.gov.uk we have record numbers of datasets for citizens and businesses to re-use, boosting the UK economy and driving positive disruption in fields such as transport, financial services and retail.
But we cannot rest on our laurels.
We need to remove licensing barriers and paywalls. We need to improve the quality and reliability of government’s data infrastructure.
And we need to continue to make data open. If we make data open, the quality of that data is improved. Errors are spotted, new solutions are suggested and standards are raised.
If we put restrictions on data, we restrict its quality and its use. Data should be allowed to flow. Data should be used and re-used.
It is critical that businesses have the ability to create new and innovative products without being hampered by cost, by licensing conditions, or the inertia caused by uncertainty and doubt.
This will substantially reduce friction in the public sector and wider economy, thereby encouraging data-driven innovation and public service transformation.
The evidence for opening up data assets is overwhelming.
Recent research commissioned by the Open Data Institute found that opening up core public sector data assets will contribute an additional 0.5% of GDP every year.
UK companies using, producing or investing in open data have a combined annual turnover of over £92 billion, employing over 500,000 people.
A global market powered by open data from all sectors would create an additional $3 trillion to $5 trillion a year.
So let me link my three themes: high quality, precise, open data.
In the Budget we set aside £5m to develop options for an authoritative address register that is open and freely available.
This is extremely exciting. It is critical that address data is made open. The potential benefits are enormous.
Just as the release of GPS data in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan kick-started a multi-billion dollar proliferation of digital goods and services, and GPS and mapping services now contribute to an industry worth over $90 billion a year in value to the US economy, so open addresses have huge potential now.
When Denmark created an open address register the economic impact represented a return on investment in excess of 3,000%.
I want the UK to be the best place in the world to set up and grow a data business. But in order to achieve this, we need to make future innovation simpler and remove the barriers that stifle progress.
Innovation is impossible without being open to new ideas and new solutions - without being prepared to be bold.
So we are working across government, with enthusiasm at the highest levels, to explore options for an open address register. There is lots of work for us still to do but we are ambitious and excited by the potential impact that an open address register could have.
And I pledge today that we want to work with you, hear your thoughts and harness your creativity to make this happen.
I believe that countries that find ways to offer their businesses and public services reliable, trusted access to high quality data - will reap similar benefits to countries that led on the provision of access to roads, transport and water in previous centuries.
During Edward II’s reign - there were just a few thousand letters being distributed around the country each year. It took the establishment of the national postal service in 1635 dramatically to expand that market and to create the need for every property and place to have an address.
Let us take the next step now and build Britain’s place as the most vibrant, innovative place upon earth, to help fulfil our mission of improving the lives of the citizens we serve.