Postal service develops smart cities projects

With the rise of digital communication over the last two decades, it might be easy to forget just how essential the U.S. Postal Service has been in developing the nation. Under the constitutional mandate to establish post offices and post roads, the formation of the postal service created not only dependable communication; it also provided for a transportation infrastructure.

Now, the postal service seems to be renewing its pioneering spirit with innovative smart city pilot projects. The programs would outfit mail carrier vehicles to collect an array of data. Vehicles could be equipped to detect potholes and safety issues in bridges, monitor air quality and leaking pipes and identify blight.

iot-postalAs cities around the country develop smart city initiatives to utilize data to improve the quality of life for citizens, the postal service seeks to provide possible solutions. The postal service has a vast infrastructure of carriers, vehicles, post offices and mailboxes that could facilitate the collection of multiple types of data for local governments.

In a Sept. 26 report from the USPS Office of Inspector General, the agency described interviews with city, university and private-sector stakeholders involved in smart city projects and identified five potential pilot projects.

“The OIG believes that these projects represent a substantial opportunity for the postal service to better utilize its assets, promote the public good, generate goodwill and possibly generate new revenue,” the report states. “The postal service can also participate in and help shape the national smart cities conversation.”

If adopted, projects like those identified could help the postal service strengthen its role as a national multi-connected infrastructure. The postal network covers every community nationwide and its vehicles travel down almost every road, including roads that city and county vehicles may not regularly cover. The network would allow data to be generated nationally, regionally, locally or along a specific route.

In Pittsburgh, the postal service has proposed two projects. The first would assess road conditions by analyzing images with vehicle-mounted cameras. City officials could catch cracks before they became potholes using software created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for that purpose.

A second pilot project to monitor bridge conditions in Pittsburgh would also be done in collaboration with CMU. Researchers are testing accelerometers to collect vibration data that can be used to analyze the structural condition of bridges. The postal service would install the devices on vehicles which frequently travel across the city’s bridges to collect data that researchers will use to fine-tune the analyses.

A pilot project in Montgomery County, Md., would help manage water infrastructure by identifying lack of pressure and leaks. Pressure sensors installed in fire hydrants and acoustic sensors on water pipes can detect problems, but there is a difficulty in transmitting the problems to the water department. Gateways installed in passing postal vehicles could pick up alerts from sensors and transmit the data to officials.

Urban blight in the New York Capital Region could be identified early by postal carriers in a fourth pilot project. Carriers could use an app to report potential problems like vacant or distressed properties to officials in the cities of the region. Cities could then send out inspectors for an official investigation.

The last pilot project would monitor air quality in Portland, Ore. The city would like to monitor the impact changes to its transportation infrastructure have on air quality. Mobile sensors could be installed in postal vehicles to monitor air quality.

Postal service officials are working to answer questions about data ownership, privacy, security and business models before any of the projects can be implemented. A number of other projects in more nascent stages are also being considered. No matter which projects are eventually adopted, there is no question the ubiquity of the postal service is a national resource that should not be ignored as the use of data to improve public services continues to evolve.

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