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Does Big Data have a place in the Postal World? Robert Reisner hosts a panel where Wendy Eitan of the UPU (pictured above), Adam Houck of IBM (pictured above) and Etay Oren of Communithings discuss different options.

Postal Consulting Services President, Kathy Siviter, reviews PostalVision 2020/5.0 as part three in a nine part series.


Last week’s PostalVision 2020 conference featured a panel discussion around big data analytics and potential applications for posts. Robert Reisner, Ursa Major, acted as facilitator for a panel including Wendy Eitan, UPU; Adam Houck, IBM; and Etay Oren, Communithings; discussing big data, the Internet of Postal Things, and the role posts could play.


Finding “Treasure” in Postal Data.  Wendy Eitan, UPU Product Strategy, Integration and Economics Coordinator, told the PV2020 audience that the UPU is required to collect statistics on the postal sector and contribute data to the United Nations statistics division, so “big data” is not a new thing for the UPU, which has been collecting data from tracking information as items travel from acceptance by the UPU posts to delivery. She noted that until 2013, most of the data was used for operational purposes to diagnose performance issues and report to UPU member countries where bottlenecks were occurring and performance improvements needed as well as overall delivery performance.


Eitan said that last year, in collaboration with World Bank, the UPU conducted a large study on customs bottlenecks, taking data for the last year from around the world and analyzing what was happening as items went through customs. She said interesting things were found in different countries, noting that prior to the study it was thought that posts were causing problems with customs issues but in some cases found that customs itself was unable to handle the volume of items in a timely manner. Now, she said, the UPU is dealing with customs organizations to share the information and simplify and improve the processes, identifying the countries with the most problems and then talking with their governments to attempt to improve processes. The UPU now is examining data relative to the transportation segment, when items go on airlines and control is lost until they arrive at sorting centers. The UPU is trying to see if airlines are performing routing provided by the posts correctly.


“There is treasure in this data,” Eitan told the PV2020 group, “and we want to use it in ways that benefit member countries on postal and policy making issues – not just in terms of historical data analysis, but in predicting the future. She said in addition to development of an organization-wide data strategy including policies for confidentiality, the UPU has set up a team and trained a staff on how to harness the data, and is collaborating with other U.N. agencies to enrich data analytic abilities, re-use the data for different purposes, and harness data not being used. The data can be used to predict international trade flows, and develop innovative flows of trade patterns, she said, but integration is vital with postal supply chain partners like the airlines, customs, payment processing providers and others. If the data is shared, it can provide better service to global customers. Eitan noted that the UPU held a big data forum last year with the USPS OIG group and a white paper was developed, then did a forum on the Internet of Postal Things at the October session of the UPU meetings last year and will continue with follow-up meetings.


Data can Open New Opportunities.  Adam Houck, IBM Senior Managing Consultant in its Advanced Analytics practice, said the Internet of Things has been being discussed for over 20 years, but things are taking off now because of the size and cost of technology such as sensors, cloud technology, and storage. “We demand so much more as consumers now,” he said, “which brings IT and technology into industries that are not natively IT.” Houck said that IBM has been working with the USPS OIG since last August on the hypothesis that “significant, yet-to-be exploited value exists at the intersection of the Internet of Things and the vast physical infrastructures of Posts.” He said research has been completed and the takeaways (which he said will be presented in a paper to be published in the next few months) include that opportunities exist and have yet to be exploited; the idea was confirmed of a progression from shorter-term to longer-term applications, in relation to strategic value and feasibility; and solutions vary in how much they leverage the richness of the connected postal infrastructure.


Houck said research reveals that opportunities abound in products, operations, infrastructure, customer experiences, and the role of the post in society. He said that data sources need to be instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent. For example, he said the USPS has done a lot with greening the environment but there is still much low-hanging fruit, such as identifying locations with both a heater and A/C unit running in the same spot, which seems simple to fix but the scenarios lack at least one of the instrumented, interconnected and intelligent requirement.


The posts can also re-think use of its delivery vehicles, Houck said, if equipped with sensors then the vehicles could collect data along the route. Every time it passed GoPost lockers, for instance, it could collect and transmit data on what items have been picked up. There are many other types of data that could be collected as well, he said, encouraging PV2020 conference attendees to read the paper written by Michael Ravnitzky, PRC (http://www.prc.gov/sites/default/files/papers/Ravnitzky%20Postal%20Sensors%20Paper%20070910-MJR-1_1191.pdf).  “There are concrete examples out there,” he said, “this is not the art of the possible, it is happening right now.” He said IBM is working on similar opportunities in Europe with Continental Tire.


Houck told the PV2020 group that some of the concepts are not without challenges for posts, including brand challenges for opportunities that may require posts to redefine their brand and potential role in society; cultural challenges where posts may not find serving as information broker a comfortable or traditional role; and core capability challenges in that posts likely to not possess the needed technical capabilities in house and may not be familiar with partnering to address the challenges of scale, data capture and analysis. He said that posts need to learn to fail quickly, well, and learn from the experience because it is good to experiment.


USPS Street Presence and Data Opportunities.  Etay Oren, co-founder and CEO of CommuniThings, an Internet of Things enabler specializing in collecting structured data from the street and leveraging the postal core value, told the PV2020 group that he read recently that the valuation of the USPS’ brand is $3.6 billion, which is significant. The USPS has a presence in the street every day, he said, and should be thinking about how to monetize the asset and create revenues from the Internet of Postal Things, exploring services such as sensing as a service, or collecting/providing data on air quality or “smart city” opportunities. Reisner said that data is likely to be collected because the engineers will figure out what data is available, then the question will be who is allowed to use it.


Oren gave an example of an immediate revenue potential generator for posts being a service like “find my bike/pet, etc.” where the bike/pet has a sensor, or smart bins with sensors are provided, and delivery vehicles could provide sensing services to help locate items.  He said there are many services around taking raw data provided by sensors and providing it to third parties. Data aggregators are new players in the marketplace, he said, providing data aggregation for apps/services. Another example would be using sensors on vehicles to collect data such as air quality where posts could use delivery vehicle sensors as well as other transit sensor opportunities to provide data on main road arteries and increase data from once a day to providing something like heat map cartography, etc. Posts should start with a value chain two-tiered approach, Oren said, starting small between posts and other parties, trying things with one element where there is a need, testing it and seeing where it goes.


Individual speakers’ presentation slides may be viewed here and Google Hangout full conference video here.


By Kathy Sivitar

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