Thinking about the future of the post office: An interview with Amanda Weaver

By Melody Kramer – April 26, 2016
Imagine receiving a text message every time a new letter was placed in your mailbox, or your city receiving a notification when there was a new pothole in your neighborhood — courtesy of a sensor that had been placed on your neighborhood mail truck.

These are the types of things that Amanda Weaver and her colleagues think up at the Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC) at the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General’s Office. Her team operates like a government think-tank, writing white papers on everything from 3D printing to the Internet of Postal Things to ways that post offices could provide financial services for underserved populations. They basically think about what a post office could be and how it could operate — and then research and write up reports that are relevant to the Postal Service.

We reached out to Amanda after learning about her work to see if she would tell us more about what the RARC thinks about and does on a daily basis.

Melody Kramer: You work with a research group at the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General. Can you describe some of the projects your team works on and what you’ve published?

Amanda Weaver: We are a small research group generating strategic ideas for the efficiency of USPS. We work on different and interesting research topics — and have a diversified portfolio focusing on several major themes.

I’m going to list some of our current projects and things we’re thinking about:

Enhancing the value of mail to digital natives. We see these digital natives as the future. By 2017, they will be 40 percent of the U.S. population with the most economic purchasing power. We’re taking a two-pronged approach to this:

First, we’re trying to understand their revealed preferences using the latest scientific techniques from neuroscience. Second, we’re focused on innovations within the mail itself. How can we use the latest technology to make the physical mail piece more digitally interactive and thus more appealing to the digital natives?

The Internet of Postal Things. We’re imagining how the rich infrastructure of the Postal Service could be used if it were outfitted with sensors and interconnected with each other as well as the internet. This would create useful information to make the postal system smarter, and allow it to collect really useful information to the localities as a byproduct — think about sensors that could measure road conditions, the strength of mobile signals, or monitor air quality. We are currently expanding on this concept in another paper to explain how the Internet of Postal Things could aid in the efforts of “Smart Cities.”

Keeping up with new technology. We also keep up and report on what’s happening in the parcel market in terms of new technologies (robots, algorithms, driverless cars, drones, etc.), and new entrants with new business models (startups like Postmates, Shyp, Deliv; regional carriers; retailers delivering their own goods like Amazon; and the traditional players like FedEx and UPS).

Monitoring innovation. To expand our research, we’ve recently started an effort to more closely monitor innovation and startups in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. We reach out to people and companies there to meet and talk about their work.

MK: I’m really interested by the idea of the Internet of Postal Things. I know your office has written a white paper about this topic. You mention more than a dozen possible applications — I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the distributed infrastructure of the post office supports this kind of innovation, and the possibilities that the post office could provide based on having this distributed workforce.

AW: It comes down to ubiquity, frequency, and regularity. The Postal Service is everywhere: it works seven days a week and on a predictable regular schedule. Combine this with leveraging sensors on an infrastructure of over 500,000 employees, 31,000 post offices, and 214,000 vehicles and there are huge possibilities with the Internet of Things. I’m going to highlight some really interesting applications:

The “You’ve Got Mail” moment. We’ve thought about how sensors in mail boxes could send you a text message the second mail is delivered to your mailbox. This could make the mail moment more exciting (Think about the red numbers on Facebook that show you have a message. We could create a similar experience for physical mail.)

Sensors on postal vehicles to measure and report road conditions. Mail trucks travel down every street every day anyway. If we put sensors on mail trucks, we could provide valuable data about road conditions, potholes etc. without the need for cities, counties, or state-level Departments of Transportation to send people out to do it.

Sensors to report mobile signals. Postal trucks could also be equipped with sensors that test the strength of a mobile signal in every part of the country. This data could be valuable to companies that provide broadband internet to let them know where their signals are weak or non-existent.

MK: Jumping to a different white paper I read: How might 3D printing (pdf) disrupt logistics, and how is the post office thinking about that? I’m especially curious about those last mile regions: where they are and what innovations are out there to support shortening supply chains?

AW: What’s great about 3D printing is that it enables rapid prototyping and mass customization leading to more manufacturing of lightweight items locally. This is our strength, i.e. delivering stuff locally and the delivery of lightweight parcels. So the Postal Service would be ideal for delivering 3D-printed light objects and even the raw material to all those local small manufacturers (the so-called Makers). We think there is a $500 million opportunity in new parcels.

MK: What can we do as citizens who love the Postal Service to keep it going? Also, are there any changes coming for self-service, etc?

AW: Self-service kiosks require an initial investment that is probably very high. I don’t see there being a massive roll-out of them in every post office. But, I do think there is interest in having more of them in offices where it makes sense.

As people, in my opinion, I think the important thing to understand is how much of a role regulation plays in how the Postal Service must conduct business. The Postal Service faces regulatory hurdles that no private-sector firm would ever have to deal with. It’s expected to generate its own income, yet it’s stifled by legislation that doesn’t allow it to offer new products and services, participate in mergers and acquisitions, or move as quickly as a private corporation. I think knowing the impact legislation plays in the future of the Postal Service is critical to understanding the way forward.

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