Postal Service seeks to make mail smarter

The U.S. Postal Service's plans to track letters as they move from sender to destination may help determine if the check really is in the mail.

Using data-rich, readable bar codes on letters and packages, the Postal Service aims to improve mail delivery and transparency. The approach, termed Intelligent Mail, will modernize the Postal Service's handling operations and allow it to compete in a rapidly advancing field.

"The timing is right to do this type of thing," said Charles Bravo, senior vice president of the Postal Service's intelligent mail and address quality group. "Technology has gotten to a point where it creates this opportunity."

The Intelligent Mail plan hinges on the One Code vision, a single bar code packed with information. The code would replace the various stickers and bar codes that clutter mail to provide services such as sender notification.

"We're looking to eliminate and consolidate," Bravo said. "It frees up other space on the envelope. We're going to derive more and more data from these pieces of mail."

With One Code, Postal Service officials can scan mail when it comes into a post office and as it moves through production. At delivery, the carrier scans it and completes the cycle. Throughout the process, officials can obtain information about when the mail was sent and who sent it.

Customers can determine if a magazine or payment has been sent, and companies can find out when a customer received a bill or a catalog. This information could lead to targeted marketing, in which companies can follow a mailing with a phone call when it's confirmed that the mail has been received, Bravo said.

"If you look at the Postal Service for the last 200 years, mail is mail, and it's been the same thing," said Rick Merritt, executive director of PostalWatch, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It has a diminished value to its customers."

Intelligent Mail would increase the value of the product, Merritt said, allowing the Postal Service to compete. "Think for one second if the ability to track your Federal Express package was not there," he said. "It would be a significant diminishing value in that product."

The effort would also save the Postal Service money by allowing officials to determine more efficient and dynamic processes for mail handling, Merritt said. "It's one of those core enabling technologies," he said.

The Intelligent Mail vision began to materialize in January with the formation of the intelligent mail and address quality group. Officials have spent the past several months developing the overall plan, Bravo said. The initiative has initially been targeted toward corporate mailers, and the Postal Service has already unveiled the first application, called Confirm.

With Confirm, businesses subscribe to the services and have the ability to track mailings. Bravo said more than 150 customers are signed up and the service is continuing to grow.

The plan would eventually extend to include individual mail, an implication that makes privacy advocates uneasy. A July report by the President's Commission urged the Postal Service to examine the use of Intelligent Mail processes on all mail to allow for traceability and improved security. The required sender identification would allow law enforcement to identify those who send unlawful or dangerous mail, the commission said.

The mandatory tracing would eliminate the anonymity of mail, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. This could deter whistle-blowers and tipsters, for example, from speaking out about an issue.

Schwartz said Intelligent Mail could offer many benefits to mailers if it is approached properly. His organization has been working closely with the Postal Service, whose officials say the initiative will not be mandatory. "It depends on how it moves forward," Schwartz said. "The privacy concerns are much different in that case than if they are requiring it for all mail."

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The U.S. Postal Service's Intelligent Mail initiative is intended to improve the efficiency and transparency of mail delivery.

* USPS delivers mail to more than 140 million homes, businesses and post offices.

* The Postal Service adds 1.8 million addresses each year to the organization's delivery database.

* USPS handles more than 200 billion pieces of mail a year, which is equivalent to five pieces per address per day.

* The Postal Service sells $31.5 million worth of stamps and stamp-related products via the online Postal Store.

* About 7 million people visit USPS' Web site (www.usps.com) each month.

Source: U.S. Postal Service

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