• on May 18th, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 4 comments

    If you are even remotely digitally hip, you probably know that “big data” is a hot topic. But it is far from a mere fad. Big data — which refers to large, complex datasets combined with sophisticated, powerful analytics — has definitely been having a big impact on not just scientific research capabilities, but commercial activity as well. Amazon, Walmart, and eBay are just a few businesses using big data to better target products and services to consumers.

    Could big data help the postal industry? Earlier this year we jointly hosted a forum with the Universal Postal Union to discuss that and many related questions. Postal experts and big data experts from all over the world attended, and they agreed that, yes, big data can provide extraordinary opportunities for postal operators — including the U.S. Postal Service — to improve operations as well as current products and services, and even create new ones.

    It’s not a quick and easy process, though. The forum established that a clear and coherent big data strategy must first be articulated – one that answers questions like, “What will you use the data for?” and “How will you ensure privacy?” Some of the first steps in this strategy include buy-in from top leaders of the organization in addition to development of partnerships with other stakeholders to share data sources. Also, internal changes must be made, such as taking an interdisciplinary approach involving data experts and marketing whizzes to build a digital culture within the organization.

    All of this happens one step at a time, and our new paper, International Postal Big Data: Discussion Forum Recap, details each one of these steps. It also includes information on big data pilot-trials that some postal operators have launched and the particular operations and services their big data experiments have involved.

    What do you think? How does your company use big data? How do you see the Postal Service using big data? What concerns would you have about the Postal Service using data analytics to develop new products or services? Where do you see opportunities for the Postal Service to partner with the private sector?

  • on May 12th, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 1 comment

    Maybe you’ve seen the television commercial with a clueless couple sending their household items up in a hot air balloon to be stored “in the cloud.” It’s funny, but also holds more than a grain of truth. Many of us don’t fully understand the cloud. So we might not realize its promise or potential hazards.

    Cloud computing uses remote Internet servers to manage, store, and process data or content. If you use Facebook or Shutterfly, you are using cloud computing. These kinds of cloud computing applications are attractive because they help users free up computer space, keep better track of their photos or music, or organize their files.

    Businesses and federal agencies are also relying more on cloud computing because it reduces costs and increases efficiency of services. You just turn on the application as you need it, or “on demand.” Some people have compared cloud computing to a utility, such as an energy company. All you do is plug in and you are ready to go. The energy company handles the details of generating electricity at the power plant and the customer just turns on the switch and uses it.

    But cloud computing also comes with risks of data leaks and loss of public trust. This is especially vexing for government agencies, which have turned to the cloud to help them do more with less. The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) has attempted to guide federal agencies in their cloud computing contracts with a memorandum that included areas of information accessibility, data security, and privacy concerns, among others. The U.S. Postal Service recently updated its handbook, Cloud Security, and established information on security policies and requirements to protect its information in a cloud computing environment.

    Recently we audited 13 Postal Service cloud computing contracts and found the contracts did not address information accessibility and data security for network access and server locations. Why? Because these contracts were established under the Postal Service’s older handbook and did not have the stronger controls of its newer Cloud Security handbook. They would have benefited from the Cloud Security guidelines on information accessibility and data security gaps, our report noted.

    If not implemented correctly, cloud computing runs potential security risks, such as the loss of customer information, and could hurt the Postal Service’s reputation as a trusted agency, which in turn would harm its brand. Yet cloud computing can streamline processes, reduce spending on technology infrastructure, and improve flexibility, among other benefits. The key will be employing the right security controls.

    Share your thoughts on cloud computing and what role the Postal Service might play. Do you have privacy or security concerns in maintaining information in the cloud? 

  • on Mar 3rd, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 4 comments

    Canada Post shares a number of similarities with the U.S. Postal Service, including its founding by Benjamin Franklin in 1753 when both Canada and the 13 colonies were under British rule. Both posts are self-supporting, meaning they pay for their operations through the sale of postage and services. And Canada Post, like the Postal Service, has suffered volume losses the past few years.

    Here’s where things get different, though. Canada Post has adopted a radical plan to restore its financial health, featuring bold initiatives that might seem too politically difficult in the United States. Canada Post’s five-point plan is intended to streamline operations, cut costs, and return the corporation to fiscal self-sufficiency by 2019.

    The plan features:

    1. Ending to-the-door residential delivery over 5 years. Two-thirds of Canadian residents already are without to-the-door delivery, so, while it is a major change, perhaps it is not as disruptive as it would be in other countries.
    2. Upping the price of postage. Bought in bulk, stamps that now cost 63 cents (CAD) will be 83 cents. Bought singly, the same stamps will cost $1. The increase still needs approval from the regulator.
    3. Streamlining via franchise post offices. Franchise post offices are more convenient for customers and less costly to operate. There’s a moratorium, however, on closing existing rural post offices given their popularity among customers.
    4. Increasing efficiency. Consolidation and technology improvements, including faster sorting equipment and more fuel-efficient vehicles, should improve operations. No resulting changes are expected in the corporation’s fairly relaxed 2- to 4-day delivery standard for letter service, yet parcel delivery is expected to improve.
    5. Reducing labor costs. Along with the service cuts, Canada Post said it would eliminate 8,000 jobs, mostly through attrition.

    Canada’s plan has met with criticism from opposition political leaders, labor unions, and some citizens. But Canada Post defends the plan saying without major operational changes it will lose $1 billion a year starting in 2020. It also faces a $6.5 billion pension fund shortfall.

    What could the United States learn from the Canada Post plan? Are some of these initiatives worth trying in the United States? Or are they not the right approach for the U.S.? What cost-cutting and revenue-generating ideas should the Postal Service focus on? 

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