Could the U.S. Postal Service turn its fleet of familiar white trucks into hyperlocal data collectors by equipping them with a variety of sensors?
This intriguing proposition, floated last Friday by Michael Ravnitzky in the pages of the New York Times, should have scientists, researchers and Gov 2.0 advocates cheering at the prospect of massive new streams of data. The pooh-bahs at the Postal Service should be cheering too, as this secondary use of postal assets would likely generate new revenue while adding minimal costs, perhaps giving the beleaguered agency a route to fiscal security.
Ravnitzky is chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that since 1970 has exercised regulatory
oversight over the Postal Service, but his views are his own.
"The delivery fleet already goes to almost every home and business in
America nearly every day, and it travels fixed routes along a majority
of the country’s roads to get there. Data collection wouldn’t require
much additional staff or resources; all it would take would be a small,
cheap and unobtrusive sensor package mounted on each truck."
Citing the availability of G.P.S. receivers and other technology that could be easily mounted on postal trucks, Ravnitzky suggests a variety of useful data that could be gathered by postal trucks outfitted with sensors: detailed weather readings, road conditions during storms, road quality (e.g. pothole), gaps in cellular network coverage, sources of radio frequency interference, and in a homeland security context, detection of chemical or radiological agents.
"One logical way to start," Ravnitzky suggests, "would be for the service to work with other
federal agencies, or to lease space on certain trucks to permit testing
of smart sensors by businesses, nonprofits or university researchers."
This is the sort of innovative thinking and can-do attitude that exemplifies the best of "Gov 2.0," seizing on major existing assets of the government that are underutilized, and giving them a new mission that's in keeping with the times. We hope the Postal Service will give these ideas serious consideration.
-- Mark Malseed
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