Post codes help Big Brother keep an eye on us

By Roger Highfield and Nic Fleming

Postcodes: not just for post anymore
Post codes: not just for post anymore

Jason and Samantha, the “burdened optimists” of Chatham ME5, are young, ambitious and reckless. They are in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs and need two salaries to have any chance of affording a mortgage.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Olivia, the “globally connected”, live in very expensive housing in Hampstead NW3, and are either wealthy foreigners or travel abroad a lot.

These fictional characters from a commercial database show how traditional class distinctions and stereotypes are being swept away as big business and government now control out lives based on where we live.

They are using post codes, cross-referenced with census data, marketing information, utility bills, and store cards to determine insurance premiums, where to locate shops, how to target a marketing campaign, and where we are placed in call centre queues.

Prof Roger Burrows of the University of York analysed four post codes in detail, talking to residents, estate agents and others, and found existing predictions made by the databases were “surprisingly accurate”.

Speaking at the British Association Festival of Science today, he said: “What is so amazing is the amount of work people do to give up data that marketing organisations have been trying to get out of them for years.

“I am not sure that people are aware that data they give up ever day is leading to the construction of very nuanced ‘data doubles’ and there is a whole range of organisations using this data.

“It has an impact on buildings insurance, contents insurance, increase in car insurance, the junk in letter box, how they are queued in call centres, and were we locate stores and services,”.

For one real example, W5 3PL, is the home of “Tim and Claudia” in Ealing, London, says one database. They are defined as “city adventurers”, well-educated, twenty something singles on extremely high salaries who spend little time in their smart studio flats.

Prof Burrows added that with the rise of GPS, insurers can track car movements, for instance to work, and this data ” will increasingly be used to determine car insurance.”

Using caller ID to call up a post code, company call centres can move you to the front of a queue if they think you are more likely to buy their goods, divert you to a call to a call centre in India, or let you hang on if you are likely to sap their profits.

Once classified this way, it is difficult to alter, Prof Burrows said. However, it is possible and it could be that, when people realise the power of their postcode, they could try to change it, for instance by gentrification.

While postcodes can help more efficiently distributed resources, it could mean, for example, that the wine lover who has eight lager louts in their post code could lose out when a chain of wine stores decided where to build a new local store. “The actions of other people who live next door or down the street contribute to how you are being characterised,” he said.

These classifications could reinforce stereotypes and generate ghettoes: they are increasingly used abroad, such in the US and Australia, to help people to match who they are to where they want to live. “You say I can afford £500,000 in Sydney, show me the geodemographic types I can life in.”

The influence of post codes adds a new twist to the old anxiety about “not wanting to be in Slough but in Windsor,” he said.

The most widely used system is the Mosaic classification owned by the global data corporation Experian. The Mosaic system classifies each of the 1.7 million postcodes in the UK to one of 11 different Mosaic Groups and 61 different Mosaic Types. “We also found that, for the most part, the characterisations on offer ‘rang true’ for us,” said Prof Burrows.

It seems that the nightmare vision of the sixties cult sci fi series The Prisoner has become true without most of us realising it. Episodes feature the imprisoned former agent, labelled “Number Six” by his captors who refuse to use names, failing to escape “the Village”, and declaring “I am not a number – I am a free man!”

Today, we are not numbers but postcodes, which give governments and big business a glimpse of our personal life that would impress Big Brother himself.