Digital SOS: How Technology Can Save the USPS

The advent of email may have pummeled the U.S. Postal Service, but in the end, digital services might very well save the centuries-old agency.

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Contributing to this skills gap is the fact that the Postal Service, like most government agencies, simply can't deliver the financial perks and foosball tables that lure up-and-coming IT innovators to tech luminaries like Google and Amazon. And efforts to embrace trendy technologies like cloud computing have raised the ire of authorities. In September, following an internal audit, the USPS inspector general wagged a finger at the agency for not properly controlling applications in its cloud environment.

On top of that, in early November, the USPS became a victim of a cyberattack that threatened to put the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of 500,000 of its employees at risk. "It's an unfortunate fact of life these days that every organization connected to the Internet is a constant target for cyberintrusion activity," Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe said in an email statement. "The United States Postal Service is no different."

First-class innovation

Financial woes, congressional shackles, privacy regulations, security breaches and damning audits aside, the USPS continues to test new digital waters. In the fall, the agency introduced an augmented reality technology designed to convert standard print ads into interactive experiences. The system enables consumers to use a free Android or iOS app to view digital presentations when they scan special icons that marketers attach to advertising brochures sent through the mail.

The agency is also piloting its Federal Cloud Credential Exchange, a cloud-based clearing service that could act as a hub for validating the digital credentials of people who want access to online government services like health benefits packages and student loan information.

In the meantime, tech-savvy companies are forging ahead with services that promise to disrupt the parcel delivery industry. "Small flying vehicles will completely change the way we distribute small goods," says Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet. A Silicon Valley startup, Matternet has developed a 7-lb. unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, that can carry a 5-lb. load and travel up to 15 miles autonomously, guided only by a mobile phone app.

Andreas Raptopoulos [2012] Emily Qualey for PopTech

Andreas Raptopoulos

"The USPS might be comfortable thinking, ‘We can keep on delivering letters,' but this is a dying industry," says Raptopoulos. "The growing segment is packages, and for package delivery, [drones] are the perfect transportation method."

Amazon and Google are also developing drones for futuristic delivery services in, respectively, their Amazon Prime Air and Project Wing programs. However, until the Federal Aviation Administration relaxes the rules on commercial drone use, drones are likely to remain "a novelty in the U.S. for some time and not serve as a primary source of revenue," says Matt Swain, a director at consulting firm InfoTrends.

Another emerging technology that's threatening to disrupt the delivery business is 3D printing. UPS has 3D printing centers nationwide where everyone from inventors to small-business owners are signing up to turn their prototypes into retail-ready products. UPS recently expanded those operations to nearly 100 more locations, and the overall 3D print service market increased by 21% last year, according to the Wohlers Report 2014.

Innovations like 3D printing rarely escape Cochrane's radar. "There's not much going on in technology that we don't keep our eye on," he says, noting that lately he's been following efforts to develop self-driving cars as Google gears up to release its driverless cars in 2017. But what direction the USPS heads — be it obsolescence or digital innovation — depends greatly on whether Cochrane, or Congress, is in the driver's seat.

This story, "Digital SOS: How Technology Can Save the USPS" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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