Open Postal Codes: A Public Response to Canada Post on how they undermine the public good

Earlier this week the Ottawa Citizen ran a story in which I’m quoted about a fight between Treasury Board and Canada Post officials over making postal code data open. Treasury Board officials would love to add it to data.gc.ca while Canada post officials are, to put it mildly, deeply opposed.

This is of course, unsurprising since Canada Post recently launched a frivolous law suit against a software developer who is – quite legally – recreating the postal code data set. For those new to this issue I blogged about this, why postal codes matter and cover the weakness (and incompetence) of Canada Post’s legal case here.

But this new Ottawa Citizen story had me rolling my eyes anew – especially after reading the quotes and text from Canada Post spokesperson. This is in no way an attack on the spokesperson, who I’m sure is a nice person. It is an attack on their employer whose position, sadly, is not just in opposition to the public interest because of the outcome in generates but because of the way it treats citizens. Let me break down Canada Posts platform of ignorance public statement line by line, in order to spell out how they are undermining both the public interest, public debate and accountability.

Keeping the information up-to-date is one of the main reasons why Canada Post needs to charge for it, said Anick Losier, a spokeswoman for the crown corporation, in an interview earlier this year. There are more than 250,000 new addresses and more than a million address changes every year and they need the revenue generated from selling the data to help keep the information up-to-date.

So what is interesting about this is that – as far as I understand – it is not Canada Post that actually generates most of this data. It is local governments that are responsible for creating address data and, ironically, they are required to share it for free with Canada Post. So Canada Post’s data set is itself built on data that it receives for free. It would be interesting for cities to suddenly claim that they needed to engage in “cost-recovery” as well and start charging Canada Post. At some point you recognize that a public asset is a public asset and that it is best leveraged when widely adopted – something Canada Post’s “cost-recovery” prevents. Indeed, what Canada Post is essentially saying is that it is okay for it to leverage the work of other governments for free, but it isn’t okay for the public to leverage its works for free. Ah, the irony.

“We need to ensure accuracy of the data just because if the data’s inaccurate it comes into the system and it adds more costs,” she said.

“We all want to make sure these addresses are maintained.”

So, of course, do I. That said, the statement makes it sound like there is a gap between Canada Post – which is interested in the accuracy of the data – and everyone else – who isn’t. I can tell you, as someone who has engaged with non-profits and companies that make use of public data, no one is more concerned about accuracy of data than those who reuse it. That’s because when you make use of public data and share the results with the public or customers, they blame you, not the government source from which you got the data, for any problems or mistakes. So invariable one thing that happens when you make data open is that you actually have more stakeholders with strong interests in ensuring the data is accurate.

But there is also something subtly misleading about Canada Posts statement. At the moment, the only reason there is inaccurate data out there is because people are trying to find cheaper ways of creating the postal code data set and so are willing to tolerate less accurate data in order to not have to pay Canada Post. If (and that is a big if) Canada Post’s main concern was accuracy, then making the data open would be the best protection as it would eliminate less accurate version of postal code data. Indeed, this suggests a failure of understanding economics. Canada states that other parts of its business become more expensive when postal code data is inaccurate. That would suggest that providing free data might help reduce those costs – incenting people to create inaccurate postal code data by charging for it may be hurting Canada Post more than any else. But we can’t assess that, for reason I outline below. And ultimately, I suspect Canada Post’s main interest in not accuracy – it is cost recovery – but that doesn’t sound nearly as good as talking about accuracy or quality, so they try to shoe horn those ideas into their argument.

She said the data are sold on a “cost-recovery” basis but declined to make available the amount of revenue it brings in or the amount of money it costs the Crown corporation to maintain the data.

This is my favourite part. Basically, a crown corporation, whose assets belong to the public, won’t reveal the cost of a process over which it has a monopoly. Let’s be really clear. This is not like other parts of their business where there are competative risk in releasing information – Canada Post is a monopoly provider. Instead, we are being patronized and essentially asked to buzz off. There is no accountability and there is no reasons why they could give us these numbers. Indeed, the total disdain for the public is so appalling it reminds me of why I opt out of junk mail and moved my bills to email and auto-pay ages ago.

This matters because the “cost-recovery” issue goes to the heart of the debate. As I noted above, Canada Post gets the underlying address data for free. That said, there is no doubt that it then creates some value to the data by adding postal codes. The question is, should that value best be recouped through cost-recovery at this point in the value chain, or at later stages through additional economy activity (and this greater tax revenue). This debate would be easier to have if we knew the scope of the costs. Does creating postal code data cost Canada Post $100,000 a year? A million? 10 million? We don’t know and they won’t tell us. There are real economic benefits to be had in a digital economy where postal code data is open, but Canada Post prevents us from having a meaningful debate since we can’t find out the tradeoffs.

In addition, it also means that we can’t assess if their are disruptive ways in which postal code data could be generated vastly more efficiently. Canada Post has no incentive (quite the opposite actually) to generate this data more efficiently and there for make the “cost-recovery” much, much lower. It may be that creating postal code data really is a $100,000 a year problem, with the right person and software working on it.

So in the end, a government owned Crown Corporation refuses to not only do something that might help spur Canada’s digital economy – make postal code data open – it refuses to even engage in a legitimate public policy debate. For an organization that is fighting to find its way in the 21st century it is a pretty ominous sign.

* As an aside, in the Citizen article it says that I’m an open government activist who is working with the federal government on the website’s development. The first part – on activism – is true. The latter half, that I work on the open government website’s development, is not. The confusion may arise from the fact that I sit on the Treasury Board’s Open Government Advisory Panel, for which I’m not paid, but am asked for feedback, criticism and suggestions – like making postal code data open – about the government’s open government and open data initiatives.

11 thoughts on “Open Postal Codes: A Public Response to Canada Post on how they undermine the public good

  1. Hubert Figuière

    And that’s the litmus test for the Harper Government. Thay are able to ram through parliament bills to suppression (Canada Post) workers right, so they should be able to push a bill forcing Canada Post to release the data. Why haven’t they already ?

    Reply
  2. JDrolet

    Could it be simply that cost-recovery is a “cash crop” they cherish, social value being a naive gen Y preoccupation?

    Reply
  3. Bob_Dobbs

    Spanish civil war talking points aside, who should pay for it? everyone? the people who use it or the people who profit from using it?
    though the question is moot as far as I can tell, just delete the data set. why is anyone paying for the creation and maintenance of a Victorian era transportation model data set?think the debate should be about whats its replacement
    hell maybe we should be using addresses based on Blocks not streets like the Japanese do.
    after, (or better) as part of that debate we can figure out the most cost effective way of collecting organising and publishing

    Reply
  4. Gerry Tychon

    Dave, a good article. One of the points I have not seen raised (or have missed) is that Canada Post creates/uses postal codes because it basically “has to” in order to fulfill its business function of delivering the mail. If no one wanted the postal codes, they would still have to do it or something very similar.

    Reply
  5. Greg_michener

    Nice post, David. A lot of businesses use public data to make their money – the point here is that CPost is a publicly owned company, which makes a justification based on the profit motive moot. This case does not even merit a ‘public interest test’  — would the info be of greater benefit to the public than it would be to keep private? A resounding ‘yes.’

    Reply
  6. Arnolds

    Just a few comments, and I am speaking for myself and not my employer:
    – I agree with the access to information post above. Should we not be able to do an FOI request on what that “cost recovery” is?
    – Haven’t they heard? Cost recovery is a myth, government GIS people figured that out years ago, just ask any of them. Or better yet, read the studies. There is more economic benefit to be gained from giving the data to people that can add value.
    – Why are we paying cost recovery anyway, isn’t the cost of that covered by our taxes and the ever-increasing cost of mailing a letter or parcel? Since they have to maintain that data to continue to operate, why is cost recovery even an issue.?
    – You know where I stand on being charged for that data. If that’s the game, every address issuing agency (i.e. muncipalities, regional districts, etc.) should band together and charge Canada Post for the use of “our address data”.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Call for cases related to postal code data? | apoikola

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