The recent announcement by the Irish Department of Communications that the a post code system will be implemented in the Irish Republic has been met with howls of anguish from the incumbent postal operator (An Post, which is Irish for ‘The Post’, which sums up the level of ‘out of the box’ thinking that is sometimes displayed by this organ of the State) and reactionary soundbites from anti-postcode activists to the effect that the ‘probable increase in mail volumes’ actually means we’ll all be swept along on an avalanche of junk mail.
Somewhat perplexingly, the Department of Communications has not been quick to counter the knee-jerk junk-mail accusations with anything that points out the additional benefits that could accrue from a structured postal code system, which could include improved management of junk mail suppression files by companies and/or the Data Protection Commissioner as a result of easier matching and de-duplication of mailing lists and suppression lists. This would actually serve to reduce instances of unsolicited direct mail. The increase in mail volumes that the Department’s report into Post Codes could just as readily be attributed to the increased use of the postal service for transacting business such as mail-order retail (an industry that has struggled to succeed in Ireland due to our lack of post codes) or increased fulfilment of e-business transactions by mail.
An Post has pointed out that they have already invested millions in what they say is the most advanced postal sorting system in Europe and as such post codes aren’t needed for them to sort mail (this is an important point). Of course, just because we have the most advanced postal sorting system doesn’t mean that we have the levels of service efficiency that they have in other countries. Like those ones that have post codes. By investing in an over-engineered sorting system which is effectively a bespoke solution for Ireland, An Post would have preculded opportunities to achieve economies of scale through reuse of systems and processes implemented elsewhere in the world. What possible justification could there be for an ostensibly commercial organisation serving a small market (less than 5 million souls) to invest in a ‘once-off’ postal sorting system rather than adopt the standard approach used in other countries of having postal code system that other postal service operators could use easily? In effect, they decided to build a wood-burning car even though everyone else was using diesel for the simple reason that they thought they owned the forest.
The largest union in An Post has come out broadly in favour of the proposal. Hang on… isn’t it suppoed to be Government + Employer ganging up on the proletariat? What does it tell you when the UNION comes out in favour of the plan when the employer objects? Could it be that the union members are tired of getting splinters from fuelling up the wood-burning car and all they can see for miles around now are fields?
An Post claims it will cost €6million to overhaul their systems. Then again, this is the commercial enterprise who’s response to declining sales is to up their prices. If they dug up Adam Smith, wrapped him in copper wire and replaced his tombstone with a magnet that logic would make him spin so fast that they would soon outstrip the ESB as a supplier to Irish consumers. Speaking of which – how much did the ESB have to invest in changing its systems and processes to allow for market opening and deregulation? Quite a bit. And one of the things that cost the most amount of money to address in that process was the management of and standardisation of address data – which would have been made a lot easier if there had been postcodes.
The medium to long term benefits to the Irish economy of a proper post code system are immense. For a start, it would assist in reducing direct costs to businesses by reducing the time take by call-centre staff (for example) to handle enquiries. It would also allow for additional types of ‘geographic’ based services to be offered to Irish consumers – such as useful classified directory enquiries that could tell you where the nearest restraunt is to you rather than giving you a list of all those that are in the same county or postal sorting area.
Post Codes are about more than just mail sorting. In Ireland, we currently use postal zones. The Dublin ‘post code’ is actually a misnomer – it is a postal district identifier. The only national standard database for address data is produced by An Post and has been developed to suit the requirements of postal delivery in that it is built around the idea of postal zones. This gets to be a little bit crazy when the database of record decides that, to facilitate An Post, an entire town has to be moved to a different county. Ballyhaunis Co. Mayo is actually listed in the An Post address standard as being in Co. Roscommon.
For businesses (or political parties or charities or government agencies) trying to identify locations and perhaps trying to ensure that they have correctly identified a person in the context of a location the existing standard is not fit for purpose. A properly implemented postal code that relates to an actual location rather than an administrative office would greatly improve the situation and would make matters such as Data Protection compliance easier. Law enforcement and Emergency services functions would also improve due to an improvement in the quality of a critical piece of data.
Granted, not every country has a post-code system. The following countries don’t have post codes in operation at present:
- East Timor
- Hong Kong (but there are plans to integrate HK into the Chinese post code system)
- Macau (also to be integrated with the Chinese post code system)
- Iraq (but implementation work started in 2003)
Some people have argued that ‘sure, isn’t Ireland too small to have a post code’. But coutries with post codes include :
- Christmas Island
- The Cocos Islands
Find out more about countries and their post codes HERE.
A proper post code system would represent an important piece of Information Infrastructure for Ireland. It would reduce barriers to entry in the mail-handling industry and would create new spin off industries dedicated to creating add-value products and services based around a post code system. That is why it is critical that the Minister and Government ensure that this is done PROPERLY and we avoid the errors of the e-Voting fiasco (also, unfortunately, something that happened under Minister Dempsey’s watch). The key lessons are that advice from industry groups should be sought and should be heeded. Short-term short cuts should be avoided at all costs. Wherever possible, economies of scale should be sought by leveraging the work which is on-going in other Government departments, state bodies and commercial environments to avoid reinventing a square wheel.