The postal service's hidden cool factor

E-mail made paper mail seem like old hat years ago, but the U.S. Postal Service is operating on the cutting edge of technology, behind the scenes.

yellow mailbox

The mail that arrives in your box each day comes to you thanks to the postal service's advanced technology. (Stock image)

Snail-mail is so behind the times, right?

Wrong.

The United States Postal Service is at the cutting edge of supercomputing technologies and the big data revolution, operating one of the most powerful non-classified supercomputing databases on the planet to process and detect fraud on over 528 million mail pieces every day.

While some agencies struggle to implement big data strategies, USPS has been experimenting with it since 2006 as a means of fraud detection, and its implemented IT architecture has expanded to address what is arguably "one of the world’s most voluminous real-time transactional data problems," according to USPS program manager Scot Atkins.

In an interview with FCW, Atkins explained how USPS delivers the mail and ensures revenue protection for an agency that receives no operational tax dollars yet employs more than 500,000 people. Innovative IT solutions, he said, are the reason Americans pay 46 cents for a standard stamp and not a whole lot more.

The core of the USPS’ supercomputing operations takes place at the Eagan IT and Accounting Service Center in Eagan, Minn. The technological specs of the facility Atkins is allowed to publicly share are impressive: 16 terabytes of in-memory computing coupled with transactional database record ingest rates that allow it to run comparative analysis on a database of about 400 billion records faster than you can blink.

The supercomputing facility simultaneously processes data from 6,100 mail pieces per second from all over the country. When a mail piece is scanned at a post office facility, its relevant data – like carrier and routing information, weight and size – is sent via the Postal Routed Network, which Atkins described as “our own enclave of the Internet,” to the supercomputing database in Eagan.

The information from each mail piece is then compared in the database to some 400 billion records, and complex algorithms help carry out fraud detection and other tests on the data before it is routed back through the Postal Routed Network to the delivery center.

All of this happens in an average of "50 to 100 milliseconds," Atkins explained, and if something is off – a package with insufficient, duplicated or fraudulent postage – it is detected and intercepted in near real-time. A distribution clerk can reassess a package, errors can be tracked down, and fraud attempts – large or small – are reported to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for further investigation.

Atkins said the USPS supercomputing and revenue protection program has cut fraud, and while USPS does not publicly aggregate how much money is saved as a result, he said an organization as large as USPS faces a significant amount of fraud attempts. With annual revenue of $65 billion, the math says big data could save USPS millions per year.

"We catch some pretty sophisticated stuff," Atkins said. "The biggest effect we’ve seen is deterrence. We can measure deterrence within our organization, and a large number of fraud cases dropped off significantly since we introduced a lot of revenue protection capabilities as far back as 2006. Like any organization, we’ve been trying to improve."

USPS’ annual revenue has declined since its peak in the mid-2000s for a variety of reasons, and with the agency facing another major revenue loss in 2012, how it makes the most of its services will prove vital moving forward in an increasingly digital world. Big data and supercomputing technologies are the agency’s answer to 21st century problems.

"We’re in the last mile by the time mail gets to the post office, and if we don’t intercept fraudulent packages at that point, chances are we won’t get the revenue," said Atkins. "The USPS is very active in protecting revenue for the purpose of rate stabilization and all the benefits associated with it. We also have a focus on performance and efficiency – we’re on the cutting edge, and have been for decades."

NEXT STORY: What the heck is Hadoop?

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