Unique geographic keys – linking people to places

By Iain Goodwin, OS Relationship Manager across all government sectors 

At a time when there’s an appetite for making better use of data to improve services, I’ve been thinking…

If we recognise the value of the output (a map as an evidence base to underpin decision making), what can be done to improve the input (the data)?

The answer, I believe, is unique geographic keys.

Data visualisation is absolutely crucial in helping public sector organisations work smarter and underpinning policy making. It helps to make sense of population characteristics, understand the needs of communities, and target resources effectively.

Examples of individual unique keys are scattered across the public sector: Healthcare has the NHS Number. HMRC has the National Insurance Number. The DVLA links us to our vehicle registrations with a Unique Driver Licence Number. But these organisations are concerned with their own characteristics. So, how can departments ensure these unique keys describe the same people?

The answer is to link them to the unique geographic keys that describe places. And in most cases, this will be property. Unlike unique keys for citizens, there is one version of the truth for property – the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN).

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of property-level databases across every level of government that link people to addresses. The UPRN has been described as a ‘golden thread’ that can ensure all those addresses can be easily referenced against each other – to share insight on all sorts of things, from predicting social isolation, to tackling tax fraud, or providing integrated service pathways.

It can enhance the citizen experience of government by streamlining services with ‘Tell Us Once’ type applications. And understanding and sharing our interactions across multiple services, linking them to outcomes and predictive data models, helps to ensure its public services are having the right impact in the right place.

The good news is that this is already going on. ONS rely on UPRNs to build up their statistical outputs, and offer things like the National Statistics Address Look-up (NSAL), so others can easily reference different unique geographic keys back to their address databases. UPRNs will also be key in combining the information needed for the next census. The NHS is linking its service locations to UPRNs, and exploring linking people to places (e.g. care home populations) by embedding UPRNs in GP registrations. Local Authorities and Fire Services rely on UPRNs to model risk and target preventative care such as Troubled Families and Home Fire Safety visits. The Valuation Office and Land Registry use UPRNs as a building block for their data on land value and ownership. The Universal Service Obligation (USO) of superfast broadband needs UPRNs to ensure 100% rollout to all properties by 2020. Case studies cover everything from improved emergency response to tackling organised crime.

The UPRN can also help to improve the quality of information being captured and consumed by public sector organisations, ultimately reducing the need for repeated matching and cleansing across multiple databases.

This can be achieved by validating a citizens home address and verifying their UPRN at every point of interaction between a citizen and public service. In terms of, for example, an ambulance trust, it would eliminate low confidence in address match rates, and could only improve response times.

The issue of needing a single address gazetteer was solved in 2011 with the creation of the AddressBase products with the UPRN as the unique key for the 38 million addressable objects in GB. This means UPRNs are already freely available to all of the public sector  to utilise and share via AddressBase products and the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA).

The PSMA provides the public sector with access to authoritative and accurate data that it needs to deliver these opportunities. However to realise the full benefits that are possible there are practical steps public sector organisations can take:

  • Increase use of the UPRN when capturing and verifying addresses at point of creation or citizen interaction , to help streamline referencing to other datasets within the organisation.
  • Look to increase data sharing across the public sector, to ensure the right level of data is used securely for the right purpose and avoiding personally identifiable data.
  • Data sharing could be facilitated by public bodies exposing the attribution they link to UPRNs via APIs, enabling other departments to overlay onto their own data.
  • Those public bodies utilising UPRNs that have built up extensive amounts of knowledge and capability, in particular address data management, matching and indexing, could be share their expertise more widely across the public sector to help others realise the benefits within their own organisations.

As citizens we like to move around, interacting with different services – the UPRN is an opportunity to consistently link people to the places to the locations they live and visits. This is important in terms of linking citizens geographically to social, demographic and outcomes data that helps public bodies predict their needs. But also providing all sorts of useful insight into the characteristics of populations when indexed and shared effectively across public bodies using UPRNs. The opportunity is to recognise the role of UPRNs in making best use of data, build on what already works well, and to share the benefit as widely as possible across government.

Find out more about AddressBase and the PSMA on our website.





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6 Responses

  1. Nick Ananin

    The current issue is that there are errors in UPRNs (i.e. not 100% in terms of accuracy and precision). Other systems attempt to remedy this but there can be issues in terms of openness etc. The challenge is therefore to make sure that UPRNS are accurate and precise in time and space – not insurmountable but still needs to be dealt with now

      1. Nick Ananin

        Hi Gemma
        Now that I have access to UPRN data, I have found the first potential error. I appreciate that some time has passed since we discussed this but I don’t seem to see the link you gave me to the PSMA team contact. I was wondering if you can let me have an updated link so that I can start submitting queries

          1. Nick Ananin

            Hi Jocelyn
            Thanks for the update – I have submitted the suspected error. I suspect there will be others so it would be good if there was a simpler way to submit these.

  2. Nick O'Rourke

    A very informative piece. Locational intelligence – linking attributes to place and analysing for outcomes – is central to so many areas of activity within and between nations. Just to add two things in the context of GB. First, the ONS Geography lookup from UPRN to statistical geographies is now called the National Statistics UPRN Lookup (NSUL) – see ONS’ Open Geography portal https://goo.gl/SQP8oZ. Second, for readers to be aware that aggregated geospatial/ geodemographic / statistical analysis is best placed at Output Area and Lower Layer Super Output Area, and that all statistical geographies (ie polygons) have unique identifiers in the form of the 9 character GSS statistical geography code. These codes define the statistical geography entities and individual instances in both time and space, and as such for the basis of persistent URI’s too (eg for linked data and API usage). Happy days!

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