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How can we address the mess of UK addresses?


Published: 29 Mar 2023 Update History

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Addresses matter. Some of the most fundamental questions and costs we face are linked to addressing and in the UK we have some of the best addressing on the planet yet there seems no universally accepted address format. To improve accuracy, reduce costs and enhance efficiency we need a better way, says Craig Stirk, Chief Data Officer at Sprift and member of the Data Analytics Community Advisory Group.

Addresses matter.  They provide the answer to fundamental questions such as:

Where am I?
Where am I going?
Where will we meet?
Where is this parcel to be delivered?
Where should I send this invoice?
Where can I find potential customers?

Get the address wrong and you are wasting time, money and effort, in your personal or business life.

To take parcel delivery as just one example.  Delivering a parcel on time to the right place is critical for the reputation and health of increasing numbers of businesses, especially since the great migration online during Covid. Yet if a parcel is misdirected you incur:

  • Reputation damage
  • Customer service costs
  • Collection and redelivery costs
  • Potential loss of customers

Better to get it right first time.

Isn’t UK addressing robust?

The UK has a long history of mapping and address capture, starting in 1747 when Ordnance Survey began mapping the UK.  The Land Registry, which tracks land ownership, opened its first office in 1862 and our modern postcode system was developed in 1959.

Yet, even with this pedigree, addresses are a mess.  While organisations such as Royal Mail produce the Postcode Address File and Ordnance Survey their AddressBase suite of products, these are chargeable and not readily available to members of the public.

To compound the confusion there are many different ways of writing one address and, with a typical organisation capturing customer addresses as free text, it makes it hard to connect the data dots across your organisation.

To take one, fictitious property, the following are just some of the ways it could be addressed:

  • 22 Acacia Avenue Sampletown AA1 1AA
  • 22, Acacia Avenue, Sampletown AA1 1AA
  • 22 Acacia Ave., Sampletown AA1 1AA
  • 22 Acacla Ave, Sampletoun
  • 22, Acacia Av, Sampletown
  • 22, AA1 1AA
  • The House, 22 Acacia Ave, AA1 1AA
  • House, 22 Acacia Avenue Sampletown A1 1AA

A payroll analogy

The approach many organisations currently take to addressing is akin to running your payroll using employee names as the key data point, rather than the National Insurance number and/or employee ID number.

Imagine the impact if Dawn Smith (CEO) received the pay of Dawn Smith (project manager) and vice versa.  Employees rightly expect much higher accuracy so why not for addressing?

But properties don’t have a National Insurance number or an ID number, do they?

In one of the lesser known data improvements introduced in the UK, they do.

Every property has a Unique Property Reference Number (“UPRN”).  This is assigned by the relevant local authority during the planning permission process and remains unchanged throughout the life of the property, until it is demolished.  Unlike mobile phone numbers, the UPRN is then retired permanently and never associated to another property.

How can the UPRN help your organisation?

Your customers are unlikely to know the UPRN of their property so the most pragmatic approach is to capture their address and then use modern data processing techniques to match this address to a UPRN.

This is the core of our approach at Sprift and enables us to aggregate data from hundreds of different sources in all sorts of different formats (JSON, XML, CSV, SQL …).

Once you have the UPRN it can form the foundation of your analytics.

If the eight 22 Acacia Avenue addresses had been used in eight different orders it would look as though there were eight different addresses with single orders.  By converting the address to UPRN you can now see the true picture which is a single address with multiple orders.

This data can then be enriched with the exact location (latitude and longitude) of each address through the free Ordnance Survey product OS Open UPRN opening up geospatial analytics, machine learning clustering and many more opportunities.

What role can Chartered Accountants play in this?

ICAEW members pride ourselves on our ability to add value to the organisations we work for and with.  Our expertise in analysis, using data to tell stories and governance provides opportunities to improve the way our organisations use address data.

By improving the way we interact with the addresses and locations of our customers, staff and supply chain we can increase “right first time”, reduce costs and offer enhanced analytics which deepen understanding of our organisation and its environment.

Key takeaways

  1. UK addresses are good but UPRNs are much better.
  2. Using UPRNs offers us much greater opportunities for insight and analysis, cost saving and process improvement.