USPS proposes smart cities data collection scenarios

Any smart city initiative requires an extensive, mobile, networked infrastructure to collect data – and that’s where the United States Postal Service thinks it can help. A new white paper from the USPS Office of the Inspector General proposes five pilot programs that would demonstrate how USPS can help advance smart city tech.

The idea of the “Internet of Postal Things” was introduced in a June 2015 white paper that discussed how connected technologies could help USPS improve its own operational efficiency. This new report addresses how the Postal Service can use the IoT to accelerate the adoption of smart city technology.

Two of the five potential pilot programs would take place in Pittsburgh in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. One project would involve placing cameras and CMU-developed software in 10 USPS vehicles to monitor road conditions and identify cracks and potholes. The other would connect accelerometers to postal vehicles to pick up vibrations while crossing bridges on the vehicle’s normal route. This data would help monitor conditions of the infrastructure. The same technology is already used by the city’s light rail.

“We put the whole postal physical infrastructure on the table for people to use,” said Jacob Thomases, a public policy analyst with the Risk Analysis Research Center, which produced the report. “Cities very quickly came back to us with the vehicle over and over again because it has a power supply and you can attach a sensor and not have any involvement by the letter carrier.”

A pilot proposed for Montgomery County, Md., would use USPS vehicles to pick up data from sensors on fire hydrants and water pipes to detect problems in underground water infrastructure, and a Portland, Ore., pilot would attach air quality monitors to the vehicles.

The project proposed for the New York capital region is a little different. It would rely on the postal carriers’ knowledge of the neighborhoods they serve. “An application could be created for the carrier’s device to capture this knowledge to allow more consistent input of information about properties in order to detect early signs of blight. For example, the carrier could report that a house is falling into disrepair or that a mailbox has not been emptied for a long time,” the report said.

The research is meant to find more value in the existing USPS infrastructure and maybe even increase the agency’s bottom line, but it’s too early to tell, said Paola Piscioneri, the director of global digital and innovation resources at the USPS OIG.

USPS last year issued a request for information for the next-generation postal vehicle, Piscioneri said. The solicitation specifically mentions data collection and even drones, she said, though they’re not mandatory features.

Although there are a lot of smart city projects going on across the country, none have reached a mature level, Thomases said, so the Postal Service can get in on the “ground floor.”

“It could be a tremendous service to cities because [the USPS] already exists on almost every block in America, and just by attaching sensors to some vehicles you could collect some very useful data very quickly,” he said.

In his response to the white paper, USPS’s Vice President of Delivery Operations Kevin McAdams said he was in favor of the projects but wanted more clarity in three areas not addressed by the paper: privacy and bandwidth issues associated with data collection, workforce and fleet modification.

“We support opportunities for new potential sources of USPS revenue and the ability to copartner with local government agencies which may earn ’good will‘ for the Postal Service,” McAdams wrote. “However, it is important that any service we may end up providing is properly costed and that all potential liabilities are fully explored.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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