Published 29th January 2021
Earlier this month 51 organisations, including the Lettings Industry Council and the Institute of Residential Property Management, wrote an open letter to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, calling for widespread adoption of something called a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN).
A UPRN is a number, or more specifically, an opaque sequence of numbers. This is a UPRN: 100023336956. There are 394 million UPRNs covering every property in the UK, as well as other permanent structures that probably don’t have a postal address. A UPRN is stable, so it doesn’t change, meaning it always refers to the same thing and doesn’t get reused. And because it’s a number, it’s fast and cheap for databases to index. Since a UPRN is only used once, there is no risk of confusion with another property.
Some of the media coverage around this likens a UPRN to attaching a number plate to a car, but that’s not the best of analogies. A number plate can be kept by the owner and moved to a new vehicle, whereas a UPRN is assigned early in the construction of a property and lasts for the lifetime of the property. When it’s demolished and something new is built on the same site, the old UPRN is retired, never to be reused, so a new one is assigned.
Having a consistent identifier in a data set also means that data sets with a UPRN can be compared easily as you can be certain that both data sets are referring to the same thing. The more data sets that contain a UPRN, the more data sets you can “hold hands” with, which reduces uncertainty of comparing incompatible data sets.
UPRNs help fix the “spelling mistake problem” in geospatial and address data. If every address and every property has a simple, numeric, stable identifier then you and I can refer to the same address, in any number of different contexts, using that identifier without having to spend a lot of time accounting for linguistic differences, subtleties, spelling mistakes or missing out parts of an address. Our UPRN example, 100023336956, refers to 10 Downing Street in London, also referred to as ‘Number 10’, ‘Downing Street’ or the home of the British Prime Minister. You or I know this, but a machine does not, causing huge challenges when it comes to using property data on a large scale to do anything from managing compliance to selling or letting a property. Greater adoption of this computer-readable approach could have a revolutionary effect on the industry.
The open letter proposed that UPRNs be provided in a ‘usable format,’ which is surprising considering they are a readable property identifier by definition. The inclusion of two new clauses indicates more awareness is needed to understand the use of UPRNs. For example, the Open Letter requests that “As far as is possible, UPRNs must include the tools, the support materials and the explanation needed by the whole sector for adoption, not just the solution providers.” In addition, the Lettings Industry Council argues that “Not only should the UPRN be available, but also a limited number of attributed reference numbers and geospatial identifiers.”
These clauses request not just UPRNs but a manual to make sense of them. The introduction of UPRNs represent a bridge of the physical and digital, which for some parties is a novel way of cross referencing. This information is vital, as it’s the only way to say with certainty that UPRN 100023336956 is Number Ten, as it’s colloquially known.
The recently released Open UPRN data set from Ordnance Survey is a good first step, but will only get you so far. There is a list of all available UPRNs, including the map coordinates for each, such as British National Grid eastings and northings and in longitude and latitude. Although you can see where a UPRN is on a map, the Open Data Set doesn’t show what the UPRN actually refers to – what the address is. The corresponding address is contained within AddressBase, one of Ordnance Survey’s most prized and valuable data sets. AddressBase contains everything you need to convert a UPRN into an address as well as to lookup the UPRN for any given address.
If you work in the public sector, you will have been able to download and use AddressBase and almost all of the Ordnance Survey data sets since 2011 as a result of the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA) and since May 2020 under the Public Sector Geospatial Mapping Agreement (PGSA). However, if you’re part of the private sector, AddressBase is still only available under a commercial licence with a range of pricing tiers associated with it.
The open letter calls for an explanation of what the UPRN means – the address data – alongside the introduction of UPRNs across the UK. The only way that UPRNs will gain widespread adoption, use and sharing is to release the associated data along with the UPRN, either as open data or for a nominal cost. Without this, the UPRN will continue to be used in the public sector, but there will still be significant barriers to adoption in the private sector and when these two sectors meet, talk and exchange data and information. That alone is 394 million reasons to improve UK addresses.
Written by Gary Gale, CTO, Kamma
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