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Digital SOS: How technology can save the USPS

Cindy Waxer | Dec. 9, 2014
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can compare with the challenges currently facing the United States Postal Service. Email continues to have a crippling effect on the centuries-old agency: The volume of first-class mail, or stamped mail, plummeted by 2.8 billion pieces in 2013.

Details may range from the type of mail being delivered to a parcel's final destination. With data gathered from more than 1 billion tracking events a day, the IMB system grants the USPS unprecedented visibility into its mail stream, enabling the agency to better manage cycle times, predict mail volume and drive efficiencies across the country's postal processing facilities.

But Cochrane believes the IMB's real value is in its power to help retailers and catalog companies create successful omnichannel marketing campaigns. Consider, for example, a clothing retailer that receives an email or text message alert from the USPS that a particular customer in Salt Lake City has just received the company's holiday catalog. Upon receiving this real-time alert, the retailer can immediately email the customer a digital coupon or promotional offer in an effort to drive sales and enhance the overall customer experience.

In addition to supporting such real-time responsiveness, the USPS is also using data to predict the future of mail delivery. Carefully tracking how mail moves around the country, from the moment a delivery vehicle arrives at a dock to the second a letter reaches a delivery point, provides the Postal Service with reams of information — data that it crunches using predictive analytics tools and complex algorithms.

"I can sit here in Washington, D.C., and look at cycle times in a plant anywhere in the country and get a sense of how fluid their processing environment is and how predictable their service is going to be," says Cochrane.

Any given Sunday

Data analytics is also helping the USPS with dynamic routing — the use of sophisticated computer models and data to map out the most efficient and cost-effective mail delivery routes. In November 2013, Amazon inked a deal with the USPS to deliver packages on Sundays in select cities. The partnership created a prime opportunity for the Postal Service to establish a stronger foothold in the burgeoning package-delivery market, and its package revenue increased 8% to $12.5 billion from 2012 to 2013.

"We're designing thousands of routes on a given Sunday which, in many ways, is helping us make this pivot [to parcel delivery]," says Cochrane. "If I'm excited about anything, it's understanding the data and the potential insights that it can give us."

But while dynamic routing is helping the USPS improve delivery planning and cut costs, crunching vast amounts of data requires a robust processing environment. For now, the USPS gets ample storage and the firepower necessary for fast analysis from in-memory computing tools and the open-source software framework Apache Hadoop, but Cochrane says data integration remains a challenge.

One popular private-sector trend that's driving innovation at the Postal Service is mobile. Over the past year, the agency has been replacing letter carriers' cellphones with 75,000 mobile delivery devices (MDD). Designed by Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, the handheld devices, used by carriers and mail processing workers, can access multiple wireless networks for real-time tracking of parcels and transmittal of data.


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