USPS Wants to Attach Electronic Sensors to Your Mail, Not Sure Why Yet

National Library of NorwayNational Library of NorwayThe United States Postal Service (USPS) wants to slap an electronic sensor on your letters to grandma so they can become part of the buzz-wordy "Internet of Things," and the postal service is offering $100,000 to the person who can figure out how and why they should do that.

From the proposal, which came out Tuesday:

  • Research the current and near-future developments of the Internet of Things, provide a workable definition, major facts, trends and implications for the Postal Service;
  • Provide a vision for the Internet of Things applied to the Postal Service (the Internet of Postal Things — IoPT): a conceptual design of how new sensor and other data collection technologies could increase the ability of Postal Service infrastructure to create value to its business, customers and stakeholders through data;
  • Identify the components of the postal physical infrastructure that could lend themselves to the collection of new types of data. …
  • Identify possible areas of application for the data collected.

Computerworld (which, notably, just announced the end its 47-year print run) explains that "the postal service hopes that an integration of [information technology] and new sensor-based technologies can bring 'dramatic improvements' to postal operations in terms of new product offerings, better operational diagnostics, and insights into consumer behavior," but right now the federal agency is essentially just "fishing for ideas."

The agency already collects data on every letter and box you ship, so it's unlikely that this could make the USPS more intrusive in any meaningful way. 

Technological innovation shakes things up and brings down costs, which is great, but it can't get people excited about using something that's still slower and more expensive than email. It's a case of too little, too late for the Post Office. Headlines have for years been noting the federal agency's prolonged death rattle, and a digital tracker cannot turn around such titanic governmental inefficiency.

"With a net loss of $1.9 billion" in the second quarter of fiscal year 2014, the Post Office acknowledged in May, "this marks the 20th of the last 22 quarters it has sustained a loss." That's just the tip of the iceberg, though. Back in 2012, the USPS recorded net losses of $16 billion. The fact that it has also defaulted on billions of dollars of pre-funding for retiree payments in the last few years doesn't bode well either. 

The most optimistic spin the agency's chief financial officer, Joseph Corbett, can put on the situation is that "the financial hole we're in is so deep, we can't fill in this hole every year even when we return to profitability." He said that in an interview the same day the electronic sensor proposal came out.

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  • Grand Moff Serious Man||

    Why are these previous comments timestamped in the future? What the hell is going on here?

  • ||

    Welcome to world of tomorrow!

  • UnCivilServant||

    Holy Crap! I'm a time traveller!

  • New Normal||

    Why not just abolish the USPS and let the NSA take over? Couldn't be anymore inept.

  • Hugh Akston||

    The obvious answer to 'why' is to track mail volume, routes, and transit time to optimize resource and logistics allocation. I don't know if they have a way of tracking those things currently, or if an RFID scheme would be an improvement.

    Of course that assumes that there aren't ossified institutional barriers in the way of efficiently fulfilling the USPS's mandate.

  • Brett L||

    They've been barcoding mail for a couple of decades. If they haven't been tracking those barcodes all along, maybe they can start there.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    They already do that. This is just a poorly conceived vanity project.

  • ||

    Then I'm going to put an RFID reader in my recycling bin so the USPS can track how fast I throw away 99% of the junk they stuff in my mailbox.

  • jmomls||

    All the USPS is nowadays is a conduit from mass mailer to recycling plant.

    I bet the junk mailers and recycling plants are both run by the mafia. There's no other plausible explanation.

  • ||

    Mail clerks with hand barcode scanners and the machines all read the barcodes to track where items are.

  • Doctor Whom||

    I should go into federal consulting. Something something Internet of things something something Web 2.0 something something Facebook and Twitter. Also, don't forget to strategize your synergies and synergize your strategies. Your invoice is on its way to you.

  • ||

    I've been involved in several privately funded studies that did *exactly* what the USPS is outlining. I wouldn't tell the Post Office why any of it was done for (at least) 3 reasons;

    1. It was privately funded, the ideas, information, etc., etc. are mine and/or the companies'.

    2. I'd prefer to tell the Post Office that they can't have my money.

    3. Even if I wanted to give the Post Office ideas and money to pursue them, even their unbridled success can't justify taking money from others.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Whatever manager thought of this should be drawn and quartered.

    If you don't know the purpose for which you want to do something, trying to do it anyway and hoping others will fill in the details like "why" and "how" means you are just stupid and don't need to exist, especially not in a decision-making capacity.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    "provide a workable definition".

    Ummm.... Fund it with taxpayer money, and then figure out what it's for later? Brilliant!!!! Only the topest of top top men could come up with an idea like this!

  • ||

    I actually know the Postal work flow pretty well and I can't think of a point where this would be better than their current (and cheap) system of using barcodes. Making it easier to buy and print your own postage, particularly with address information already embedded in it makes way more sense than trying to RFID the shit out of everything.

    The self-service kiosks are a great start, but I should be able to do the same thing from my computer and print it directly onto my envelopes or a shipping label from home. You can force address sanity checks and have some nice redundancy in the label and it'd save everyone a lot of trouble.

  • Hugh Akston||

    If the USPS really wants to save itself some operating money, it should start by franchising out its post office functions to local businesses the way UPS and FedEx does. There is no reason that I should have to go to a federally owned and operated post office to mail something when there are at least tow pack n' ship places between here and there.

  • Brett L||

    Making it easier to buy and print your own postage, particularly with address information already embedded in it makes way more sense than trying to RFID the shit out of everything.

    Is there anyone who still does this that doesn't have a mail department with a autostamper (forget what they call them, but I worked a summer in junk mail in the late 90s and we used to stamp or print postage, and we settled up with the USPS at some regular basis.)

  • ||

    I was talking more for consumers. Address sanity checks are farmed out to third party providers for bulk mail. End users can get preferred formatting and the Zip+4 from the USPS website, but there's no way to generate postage for it or print labels from it. I think they should encourage that by giving discount postage and streamlining the process.

  • jmomls||

    They even messed up the self-service kiosks. I've seen dolts stand in line for minutes to use one and then read the sign that says NO CASH ONLY DEBIT/CREDIT CARDS.

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