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Addressing Gazetters

by msecadm4921

Organisations need to start thinking about their address data management in a different way and adopt a super gazetteer approach if they wish to deliver faster and more efficient services.

So says Steven Feldman, Managing Director of GDC, providers of geographic information. He aims to shows how the vision of a single gazetteer can be realized without dumping existing sources

Nearly all organisations providing a public service need to know where the things they own and their customers are located. Typically they try to solve this by holding a variety of public or commercial data sources and information they already capture internally, to build up addressing databases called gazetteers. Gazetteers are, in principle, no different from the index at the back of an A to Z. To the lay-person, establishing where people and things are sounds easy. But if they took a moment to put themselves in the shoes of, say, an energy company’s security manager or an ambulance service dispatcher they would soon realise why many organisations can find it a devil of job.

Utility needs

The utility company needs to know the precise location of an electricity substation, which may be tucked away in a corner of a housing estate, or one of its many pumping stations scattered around the country. Now imagine a 999 dispatcher answering an emergency call for police to hurry to the local football ground or come to ‘somewhere near Tesco in the High Street’. None of these examples has a street address; they’re known as non-addressable items. It’s not always as easy as it sounds to pin point quickly the locations of people, equipment and machinery in the case of an emergency, or important safety checks. When asked, Londoners often describe where they work or live using unofficial names, which are not listed in an index or shown on a map, for example Bloomsbury or Holborn. Even some buildings, a bus shelter or public convenience for example, may not have a street address. And the name of an office building owner or any tenants may not be readily available. The location of many objects such as letterboxes, public telephones, and electricity pylons may be as imprecise as ‘on the south side of Waterloo Station’s concourse’ or ‘next to the T-junction’ of an isolated country lane. All are further examples of non-addressable items.

Public, commercial sources

The public and commercial sources of data include the National Land and Property Gazetteer or the post office PAF file. Examples of internal information sources could be a list of the locations of fire hydrants, street furniture, or other assets. However, even in one organisation, varying departmental priorities may lead to the data for gazetteers being collected and collated in different ways. For example, in a county council it‚s easy to understand how the Highways and Education departments would have different addressing requirements. As would the billing and pipe-laying sections of a major gas utility: the former would prioritise names and addresses; the latter the location of manholes. Not surprisingly, it occurred to some people that there would be great benefit if some order and standardisation could be introduced to the mountains of addressing data in the UK. Think of the time and cost savings which could be achieved if everyone could get all the information they needed from just one national gazetteer? It was with this laudable but, in retrospect, overly optimistic vision that about a decade ago the twin initiatives of the National Street Gazetteer (NSG) and the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG) were launched. At the time these gazetteers promised to provide a truly national gazetteer, enabling organisations within the public and private sector to work together locally, regionally and nationally. Unfortunately the vision has understandably failed to materialise. The common experience of users is that the national gazetteers are neither comprehensive nor consistent

Frustrated security managers, asset managers, field engineers, emergency service dispatchers, crime prevention officers, risk managers, you name it, all want the same thing. As Malachi Rangecroft from West Yorkshire Police put it recently on, a gazetteer ‘that does the lot’. This means addresses that include full listings for flats and the various sections of large buildings such as universities; and non-addressable locations including road junctions, car parks and landmarks; electoral role information; business address listings and so on. In the absence of a reliable national resource, organisations usually rely on a number of different specialised gazetteers, which they have developed internally. Some try to merge (crunch might be a better word) these gazetteers together in order to meet the demand from their staff for a single gazetteer. In practice, the result is usually far from perfect because of the widely-varying and often incompatible data.

Fortunately there is an alternative approach, which is increasingly being adopted and makes best use of existing resources and proven web-based technology. Instead of trying to force incompatible gazetteers together, this approach advocates keeping an organisation‚s various existing gazetteers; if it ain‚t broke, don‚t fix it – while enabling all their information to be retrieved by an independent gazetteer, which ‘floats’ on top of the existing gazetteers, analogous to an Internet search engine. This approach creates a ‘super gazetteer’ of gazetteers, and achieves the goal of one gazetteer for one organisation. Not only does the ‘super gazetteer’‚ enable all the other gazetteers to be checked, but the answer to the question of ‘where is it?’ can be speeded up by first dipping into those specialised gazetteers judged more likely to have the answer. There is another benefit of this ‘super gazetteer’ approach: because web-based technology is used, organisations can share the super gazetteer. This means multiple organisations can pool their existing gazetteers and access all the shared addressing information through the super gazetteer. For example, in crime prevention: the police; local authorities; county councils; ambulance; and the fire service can have a common super gazetteer. Co-ordinating streetworks becomes easier if the water; electricity; gas; telephone; internet cable; and highway agencies can share the same addressing data.

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