Context: access to address register data
Addresses are the fundamental units for the geographical referencing of population. Major research studies funded by ESRC such as Understanding Society and the principal government surveys held by the Economic and Social Data Service are constructed using an address list, such as Royal Mail's Postcode Address File (PAF) as the sampling frame. Although PAF contains all the addresses and postcodes known to Royal Mail and is very widely used, it does not represent a formal standard for address data nor is it a definitive source of addresses. An address list was central to the enumeration design of 2001 and 2011 censuses, the latter being based on mail-out of census questionnaires. While the same general principles apply across the UK, the organisations responsible and data products available relating to addresses differ significantly.
In many countries, legal ownership of property and taxation are strongly linked and are managed through an official address register. There is no equivalent integrated function in the UK, where addresses are recorded and updated by many different organisations for different purposes, including Ordnance Survey and local government.
Additionally, address information is collected on many datasets relating to individuals and households and is often an important element of record linkage between sources. There are not currently any general academic access arrangements for national address list data. PAF access has been licensed and paid for individually by each study. PAF also forms the basis for postcode lists such as the Office for National Statistics Postcode Directory (ONSPD) which has been purchased for many years by ESRC for academic use and is widely used for transferring aggregated data between different geographical referencing systems.
Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland both survey property and maintain large scale digital mapping products in which the representation of buildings is cross-referenced to address data. Royal Mail, the UK's postal service provider, has perhaps the closest daily contact with addressing and maintains its own list of addresses, assigning postal codes to assist with the sorting and delivery of mail.
Numerous other organisations, including emergency services and energy suppliers, maintain their own near-comprehensive lists of property addresses, largely the same set of addresses as appear in the other lists. Attempts to standardise addressing date back at least as far as the early 1990s, although this did not bring about any significant convergence of information content.
The continually changing nature of addresses means that no single source can be considered the most up to date, as valid changes may initially be detected through any one of these disparate channels and there has previously been no definitive process to reconcile these sources.