blog | 07.04.2020 | Andrew McHugh

UBDC Welcomes Geospatial Commission’s Decision to Release Core Property and Street Identifiers

Amid the widespread reporting of the recent COVID-19 pandemic you may have missed the announcement last week by the UK Geospatial Commission that two geographical identifiers – the Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) and Unique Street Reference Numbers (USRNs) – are to be openly accessible from July of this year.

This is a welcome development for those using spatial data, more specifically data describing residential and other types of properties. Without a robust and persistent form of identification, the challenges of matching addresses, or reliably linking two records based on common address information are more complicated than you might think.

If you were asked to describe where you live it’s quite likely that you would provide your address, possibly including details of your postcode. If you’ve completed an online shopping order or used government services online in the last few years you’ll now be familiar with systems that can translate your postcode to a set of corresponding addresses, which at least appear to conform to a standard format. But addresses have considerable scope for variety – there is no guarantee that addresses are correctly and consistently described or that every organisation will conform to the same conventions when recording address information.

Addresses and postcodes serve a very specific practical function – namely to facilitate the delivery of mail – and they do this quite effectively. Unfortunately though, they don’t really make great identifiers. When choosing identifiers we typically look for qualities such as persistence, uniqueness, atomicity and unambiguity. Addresses and postcodes change over time. Records of their physical location may change too. Across organisations we see addresses formatted in different ways, and often affected by typographical or factual errors that can be traced back to data entry. Postcodes may not distinguish between properties within a single building (such as flats) and often cover multiple different buildings.

Within the context of a single system it is not really a problem if a given flat’s address is recorded as G/1 or 0/1. However, if you want to match a record across multiple systems it becomes important. Typographical errors can frustrate matching efforts, demanding complicated text processing and error handling and requiring manual verification. With around 30 million property addresses in the UK, scalability is a big consideration. For historical comparative analyses, changes to postcodes’ boundaries, or instances of postcodes being retired or replaced present problems. With mail delivery as their raison d’etre, we only have address and postcode information for those properties that are set up to receive mail.

Fortunately, the UK addressing system has a solution to this problem. UPRNs and USRNs provide stable and reliable ways of referencing properties and streets. They are a basis for data interoperability, with unique numbers allocated to not only houses, government properties, commercial premises and streets, but also other objects that you may wish to identify and link, such as bus shelters or lamp posts. Until recently though, use of these IDs was subject to rather restrictive limits, and therefore not wholly accessible to support data exchange and interoperability. From July, for the first time, they will be freely available as open data, under the Open Government Licence.

A great deal of UBDC’s work involves the matching and linking of spatial information. Recent example initiatives have looked at the adequacy of public transport provisions based on locations of jobs and on the effects of place and green space accessibility on educational outcomes. Current efforts to develop a linked housing dataset combining commercial property listings, land registry transaction data and other sources such as Energy Performance Certificates (to offer a multidimensional picture of property features, value, use and ownership) will benefit substantially from the availability of a single means of identification and linking.

In the context of smart cities, that use insights gained from data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently, the existence of a unique identification of addresses and streets is paramount. Services delivered by the public and commercial sector can be targeted at the correct addresses, providing efficiencies and cost savings and the navigation reliability of the next generation of autonomous vehicles, such as drones and connected autonomous cars, can be dramatically improved.

With numerous accounts of their effectiveness – including within the context of the recent Covid-19 pandemic – we look forward to seeing how data owners use and share these identifiers once they become openly available later this year.

Andrew McHugh

As Senior Data Science Manager, Andrew is responsible for the development, management and implementation of the data services, data collections and IT strategy of UBDC. He joined the Centre in March 2016.

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