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All Things Considered

Granite Geek: The Postal Service Will Email You Photos of Your Mail

Flickr, Aranami
The US Postal Service has debuted a new way to check your mailbox remotely.

Some people might like to be surprised when they check their mail boxes. But for those of us who would rather know what's in there ahead of time, the U.S. Postal Service now offers to email recipients a photograph of a letter before it arrives.

Concord Monitor columnist David Brooks has been trying out this collaboration of new and old mail services, and he spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.

What is this new service called?

It’s called Informed Delivery, and it’s designed to inform you of what’s about to be delivered—hence the name.

And—why? Why do we need this?

Let me just say, since I first learned about it, that was my first reaction. And everyone I’ve told about it, their reaction has been the same.

It turns out—and I was not aware of this—as part of processing a gazillion pieces of mail a day, the post office photographs letters. They have automated machines at a number of processing facilities including one here in Concord that grab the envelopes and flip them around and take a picture of them. And then they read the address through software and process it.

The reason they take the photograph is that sometimes the machine can’t read the address, because your handwriting stinks or it got blurry or something. In those cases, the photograph is automatically sent to a person, who hopefully can read it, who types in the address and they put a little barcode on the letter.

And the post office saw an opportunity here. They said, maybe the recipients of this mail would like to see the photos, and so they’re sending not just photos of letters with bad handwriting, but all pieces of mail.

Right, all letters. It doesn’t cover packages or magazines. There are a few other limitations… the service is not available in apartment buildings…it’s [only] homes with separate street addresses.

So, why? Why would anyone want to use this?

There seem to be, so far as I can see, two good cases in which this has value. One of them is if there’s something coming that you don’t want to leave in your mailbox very long, and you want to know when it’s coming so you know to go out there and grab it.

The other one is if you travel and you are waiting for a particular piece of mail, and you want to know if it’s come or not.

So there are times when it’s useful, though I grant you most of the time it’s just kind of—funky.

How popular is it?

They don’t have statistics yet. First of all, this is quite new. The USPS did a test run in a few markets last year and they just rolled it out nationally last year. In the test markets, apparently, it was much more popular than they figured it would be, and the people who signed up used it more than they thought.  

There was one idea that people would sign up because it’s interesting, then stop opening the emails or turn it off because they got tired of being besieged. But that didn’t seem to be the case, at least not yet.

What about privacy concerns? Is the government archiving these photographs or collecting data about who’s sending what?

Not according to the USPS, but I’ll grant you that was my second thought. But, it’s always been non-private, the mail you get. All sorts of people look at the outside of the envelope.

The spokesman I talked to said they are not [archiving the photographs]. To be honest, that’s what I know at the moment. It’s not really worth their time, and that’s a lot of data to store…although, it’s something I hadn’t thought about before, so if you want to be paranoid, it’s something new to be paranoid about.

There is debate about whether the USPS as an institution can stay solvent in a digital age. Is this the kind of technological advance that could help them stick around?

That’s a possibility, it certainly can help. This is a free service, and they’re just doing it because they can and it’s not very expensive for them to do it.

It might be the sort of thing that makes people think about their mail again. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a game changer, but if nothing else, I’ve come to think about the postal service as stodgy and bureaucratic and behind the times. So to see them coming out with this funky, weird thing is surprising and fun. 

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