U.S. looks to create an 'Internet of Postal Things'

The U.S. Postal Service is considering whether it should attach sensors to everything, including your mail carrier

The Internet has so far delivered mostly bad news to the U.S. Postal Service, but the agency now hopes an emerging Web application -- the Internet of Things -- can help it improve efficiency.

The postal service is spending up to $100,000 to investigate how it can utilize low cost sensors and related wireless technologies. The IoT research is closely tied to its ongoing analysis of how it can best use big data technologies.

On Tuesday, the postal service's Office of Inspector General published a notice for proposals from a supplier with "expertise and critical knowledge" of the Internet of Things, data strategy and analytics.

In short, the postal service is fishing for ideas, and seeking someone who can help it develop concrete proposals for using IoT technology.

In its solicitation request, the postal service says that with "the declining cost of sensors, wireless data connectivity and storage, the Internet of Things opens up virtually unlimited opportunities to collect and process data from any device, infrastructure, machine and even human beings."

How might the postal service apply this capability to its services? It has some ideas.

The postal service already scans letters and parcels up to 11 times during processing, representing 1.7 trillion scans a year. It uses supercomputers to process that data.

In theory, the postal service said in a report last month (report PDF) that everything it uses -- mailboxes, vehicles, machines, "or a letter carrier" -- could be equipped with a sensor to create what it terms the "Internet of Postal Things."

Utilizing data generated by those sensors could be coupled with big data analytics tools. For instance, sensor data from vehicles could be combined with ERP systems to help reduce maintenance cost and optimize routes.

The postal service hopes that an integration of IT 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.

Electronic delivery has upended the postal service's business model. In 2003, it processed 49 billion pieces of single-piece first-class mail, but by 2013, that figured dropped to 22.6 billion pieces.

The postal services package business, though, is growing, thanks to online ordering. Revenue from shipping and packages increased by 17% over the past two years. It delivered 794 million first class packages in 2013, versus 583 million in 2009, according to its most recent annual report.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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