Tine Thoresen: Are We in ‘Postfach’ Now?

Tine Thoresen, Inside Reference Data

If it is true that you burn around 13 calories from laughing for 10 minutes, I think my data friends in Zurich will, if possible, be even fitter after I visited them this month. And it’s all because of business entity data.

Since there is a lack of a unique international standard for addresses, I misunderstood the company address, and thought I was in “Postfach,” when in fact, Postfach is not a place name at all—it means “post box” in Swiss German. In the Swiss address I was looking at, “post box” was on the line where the place name would have been in my UK address.

This age-old problem of standardization is one of the things that is wreaking havoc in the data world. We keep hearing frustrated data managers asking: “How difficult can it be?” But it is still yet to be fixed.

Financial services is not the only industry that could benefit—the most obvious beneficiary would perhaps be postal services, and there are already a number of activities outside the financial information world geared toward solving the standardization problem.

In fact, 191 countries are members of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which was established in 1874, making it one of the world’s oldest international organizations. One of the UPU’s many activities is developing address standards, and the organization offers a web-based look-up tool for postal addressing systems.

The fact that the UPU has existed for more than 100 years, yet there is still a need for country templates for address standards, appears to indicate that standardizing addresses can indeed be difficult.

For the financial industry, it might sound like agreeing on a standard for addresses would just be a case of large institutions coming together, but if it had been an easy process I think it would have been done by someone outside the financial industry a long time ago.

Utility or Futility?
What the financial industry can do though, is agree on using the address standards developed by the UPU for business entity data records. This is something that would have been easier if there were a global industry utility of this data, as the industry utility could then perhaps be linked to a country look-up tool similar to the one available on the UPU website. If the utility could guarantee standardized addresses by validating that the addresses had been written correctly, the set-up could help ensure data consistency.

I have seen a bank in the UK offer a link like this to the UK postal service organization, Royal Mail, and it must be possible to do the same for an industry utility on an international basis.

If a utility such as this were to become a reality, it would at least ensure that smaller firms—some of which may struggle to allocate sufficient resources dedicated to sourcing and maintaining business entity data—could also have a set-up that would perhaps previously only have been seen at institutions with mature data management practices.

But in essence, standardization of international addresses should not be seen as an issue that the financial services industry could go out and fix on its own. Regulators are putting pressure on firms to get the data right, but many data elements touch on other industries too, and it is not up to the financial services industry to change the world.

In my opinion, the best that the financial services industry can do is to ensure that all players in the market are on the same page—and when it comes to addresses, it seems that page has to be the UPU postal addressing systems page.

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