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Over the holidays, when the Adafruit shipping staff was away, I shipped hundreds and hundreds of packages of open source electronics. I put on headphones, and did my rounds through the factory and storage shelves. It was a good chance for me to reflect on how much I like the postal service (and the companies that are built around it like Endicia and Stamps.com). For a reasonable price, they can get almost anything anywhere. Sure, there are problems once in awhile, but for the volume and price, it’s pretty incredible. We have a daily pick up and delivery here in NYC; the postal staff is like part of my team. A few weeks ago, the postal service had a petition trying to get support so Saturday service wouldn’t shut down — things are getting grim.

You’ve probably seen the recent headlines: the postal service has reported massive loses in the billions. As I spent the days and nights shipping, I thought it would be interesting to consider how we could transform and evolve the postal system. I think makers, hackers, and entrepreneurs have unique ways of looking at things, and I’d like to share some of the ideas I had. Most of all, I’d like your input. Together we could start some conversations on how we could utilize this national logistical treasure. Which brings us to this week’s Soapbox: “How Makers, Hackers, and Entrepreneurs Can Save the U.S. Postal Service.”

Let’s go!

First, a quick history lesson:

The United States Postal Service (also known as USPS, the Post Office, or U.S. Mail) is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for providing postal service in the United States. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution. The USPS traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The cabinet-level Post Office Department was created in 1792 from Franklin’s operation and transformed into its current form in 1971 under the Postal Reorganization Act.

First Us Stamps 1847 Issue

Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a president, but he’s on the $100 bill, the highest bill in circulation. What a great symbol of American ingenuity. But how are they doing now? Not so good…

The USPS employs over 574,000 workers and operates over 218,000 vehicles. It is the second largest civilian employer in the United States. The USPS is the operator of the largest vehicle fleet in the world. The USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. The USPS has exclusive access to letter boxes marked “U.S. Mail” and personal letterboxes in the United States, but still competes against private package delivery services, such as UPS and FedEx.

On December 5, 2011 the USPS announced it will close more than half of its mail processing centers, eliminate 28,000 jobs and end overnight delivery of first-class mail. This will close down 252 of its 461 processing centers. On December 13, 2011 the USPS agreed to delay the closing of 252 mail processing centers as well as 3,700 local post offices until mid-May 2012. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) (HR 6407), enacted on December 20, 2006, obligates the USPS to prefund 75-years’ worth of future health care benefit payments to retirees within a ten-year time span — a requirement to which no other government organization is subject.

And just to get the bad news out of the way, here’s more. Postal Service reports massive loss.

Pt 101563
Chart from the NY Times.

The agency reported an annual loss of $5.1 billion, as declining mail volumes and mounting benefit costs take their toll. The Postal Service said its losses would have been roughly $10.6 billion if not for the passage of legislation postponing a $5.5 billion payment required to fund retiree health benefits.

Revenues from First-Class Mail, the Postal Service’s largest and most profitable product, declined 6% from the previous fiscal year to $32 billion. Total mail volume declined by 3 billion pieces, or 1.7%.

“The continuing and inevitable electronic migration of First-Class Mail, which provides approximately 49 percent of our revenue, underscores the need to streamline our infrastructure and make changes to our business model,” Postal Service CFO Joe Corbett said in a statement accompanying the figures.

Last year’s losses hit $8.5 billion, despite deep cuts in expenses and staffing. Mail volume is down more than 20% over the past four years.

So before I list off my ideas (and you post yours) on turning this ship around, let’s assume that the retiree health benefits are taken care of independently. I want to focus on ideas and services, not the benefit costs for people who retire. I realize that’s part of the business concerns, but this is about transforming the postal service from a maker/hacker point of view. Let’s keep the politics out and focus on the attainable, actionable ideas that could potentially happen. Got it? Thanks!

These are in no particular order, and there are some completely wacky ideas tossed in for humor.

The U.S. Postal Service Sensor Network

Wirelesspo
The postal service would outfit every truck with a networked “box of sensors.” They would rent sensor space in every vehicle for sensor nets. We can do that with satellites now and there are DIY sats on the way, why not for mail trucks? USA pollution, radiation, bio-threat sensors, all on every truck, all available as an API to use. Researches could use it, regular people could send off their modules that were built to spec. “You get 12V DC power and 6″x6″x6″.” We’d have a fleet of Arduino-powered sensor networks reporting back everything. Big data grinding away from every town in America. Google was collecting our wi-fi so it’s certainly possible to collect other things as the trucks move about the U.S. Pictured above, a little postal truck-meets-Engadget.

The U.S. Postal Service Street-View Service

Gcar-Tm-1200
Rent mail car roof space to companies wanting to do mapping. Bing could get a real photo of most places EVERY DAY, almost like real-time Google Street View. Or maybe it’s a public service that we all get access to with an API to experiment with. If you can get daily photos from every street, every place a postal truck goes to every day, what would be possible? Want to do a virtual tour of the USA? Work with Livestream/Ustream to stream the mail routes each day. I would tune in to my old addresses and hometown from time to time to “hitch a ride.” That’s a silly idea, but you get the point.

Pictured above, fake Google Street View car you can make on your own.

The U.S. Postal Service Cloud

Image Cc9E77A2-A14A-4Abe-Ab8B-7619C00D3F13
Provide mobile hotspots wherever the mail service is, from buildings to vehicles. These would be small cell towers that would bring access to some areas each day, extend networks of cell providers, and a lot of things I didn’t think of. The carriers could use the trucks to see weak areas of their networks and the big blue postal service mail bins could eventually be wireless network nodes in large cities, providing a public wireless network (and sensor network). Maybe your P.O. box is your own local backup storage on flash drives, off-site and always there when you need it. I’d love a TB of storage at the local post office that is syncing my important data that’s off-site and always just there.

Pictured above, Cloud vector icons.

The U.S. Postal AdSense

Pt 441
Sell our mail to Google to scan, then they can add small relevant ads to it. Just kidding, maybe. But on a serious note, there is so much data that gets “scanned” in some way to get any mail from one place to another, I’m sure there’s something else we could do with this. Handwriting analysis, pattern recognition, there’s a lot going.

The U.S. Postal Kickstarter Fulfillment Service

Kickstarter-Logo-1
Provide shipping services to “crowd-funded products” at reduced rates. For example, Kickstarters that are shipping their goods can use the postal service at a great rate. If one of the biggest issues the postal service has is declining use, why not bolt on to Kickstarter and offer such an amazing deal for makers to ship their goods to customers that they’ll use it. Fueling crowd-sourced projects in some way will get more people using the postal service, and who knows, maybe others will start to see the value too. Since the most popular Kickstarter projects are actual physical goods, they eventually need to be shipped. Yes, eBay does deals, but this is different — this is a specific effort for community and crowd-funded services using the postal service exclusively because it’s the best deal.

The U.S. Postal Service Adds 3D Printing

Pt 355
Have 3D printers in post offices. You send in a file and pick it up a few days later or it’s sent to you. They could work with Ponoko, Shapeways, etc., and rent out space in each city to them. The post office has lots of space and large machines, and it’s basically running 24/7 — that’s what we need for 3D printing hubs. You’d upload your files to USPS.com and you’d pick up items in your special 3D P.O. box storage unit, or get them mailed to you.

The U.S. Postal Service Offers Small Business “Grants” For Office Space/Co-Working

Pt 442
Grant 10,000 square feet in NYC, and other big cities, that the postal service is not using (the post offices in NYC have tons of empty space). I’ll pay market rate and run an electronics factory from it. That’s a selfish one because I need about that much space now, but why not grant cool companies doing design, engineering, and science workspace grants to get them in the same building as post offices that aren’t being used as much and have tons of space? Part of the deal is you’d use the postal service for all your shipping needs — well most of them! MakerBot in Brooklyn should just take over a mail building that’s not being used. They’re making big boxes of things that just need to be shipped.

Having internet startups and cool companies that make things in the same building as the post office in large cities could foster all sorts of cross-innovation.

Pictured above, the Peck Slip Post Office a few blocks from where I live/work. I want makers in that building before Apple turns it into an Apple store!


So those are the notes I jotted down as I shipped packages during an unusually warm December here in NYC. I’m really curious what you think. Remember, this is all about NEW IDEAS. Post yours in the comments!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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