Remember the excitement you felt the first time an envelope or Highlights issue addressed to you appeared in the mailbox? The eager hope you silently mailed to the North Pole along with the letter painstakingly printed in your best handwriting? How many times in the last 24 hours have you clicked Send or some version of “Share” to communicate with friends and family?
Like many organizations these days, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is challenged to constrain operating costs while maintaining an acceptable level of service. Did you know the USPS is required by law to fund its own operations and relies on the sale of postage, products, and services to do so? Changes in mailing behavior have had a huge impact on the USPS bottom line—e-mail requires no postage after all.
According to their Quarterly Financial Report for Q2, FY2012, USPS has racked up $25 billion of cumulative net losses in the past five years. A proposal to curb the losses and return to profitability calls for network consolidation and adjustment of service standards. USPS Modern Service Standards, first published in 2007 and updated quarterly, are officially defined as “a stated goal for service achievement for each mail class.”
Training Story: Efficiently Produce a Lot of Maps with ArcGIS
Kyle Dixon works for Electronic Consulting Services, Inc. (ECS) and is a full-time contractor with the USPS Address Management Division in Memphis, Tennessee. A software engineer, Dixon’s first exposure to GIS was in 2010 while working on the Every Door Direct Mail® online mapping tool. Aimed at businesses, the tool incorporates ArcGIS functionality to help direct mailers easily target specific areas and view estimated postage costs.
The USPS service standards maps site shows current and projected standards for four classes of mail in the U.S., Guam, and Puerto Rico. While not fancy, the site is informative and straightforward to use: just select a mail class and originating geographic area feature, and a color-coded map shows the current number of delivery days to all the other areas. A second map shows the projected number of days if the proposed service standard is approved.
In early 2012, Dixon and his coworkers were tasked with updating the service standards maps—about 9,000 maps in all. To accomplish this efficiently, he realized he needed to extend his ArcGIS knowledge. Behind the scenes, the map layouts are created with ArcGIS 10 for Desktop, exported as static graphics, cached, and then served up from a Cold Fusion web server.
Dixon turned to Esri for training. First, he viewed Creating Map Books Using Data Driven Pages, a free one-hour training seminar. The seminar shows how to use data driven pages (functionality introduced at ArcGIS 10) and the Python ArcPy.mapping module to automate map book creation.
Knowing he needed to do something similar—display a series of map layouts with dynamic text that reflects user selection options on the service standards maps site—Dixon decided using data driven pages to create the layouts and a Python script to export them was the way to go. There was only one issue: Having never done this before, he felt the need for more in-depth instruction than the training seminar provided.
His next step was to take the Python Scripting for Map Automation in ArcGIS 10 web course. Dixon had previously attended Esri instructor-led training but this would be his first experience with a self-paced web course. Not sure what to expect from the course, he found that viewing the video demonstrations and working through the exercises gave him the hands-on learning he needed to create the service standards maps.
“The course was a great value for the price,” said Dixon. “I started [the course] on a Tuesday morning and had a proof of concept done by the afternoon. By Thursday the working maps were complete, and by Friday the maps were published online.”
Using ArcGIS data driven pages, a map layout for each of 994 SCF areas is generated. A sectional center facility is a processing and distribution center that serves a designated geographic area (the first three digits of a ZIP Code typically indicate which SCF it belongs to). Once the layouts are generated, a Python script exports each one to a graphic file (PNG). On the service standards maps site, HTML code is used to display the map graphics associated with the mail class and area selected by a user.
Dixon reports the reaction to the online maps has been positive. “Headquarters was amazed we were able to do it so quickly.”
“Amazing” is a good word to describe the speed at which Dixon was able to apply what he learned in the web course to complete a fairly complex map production project. But then, creating high-quality instructional content to help our users successfully complete their work is the service standard we strive to deliver.
Anyone can use the service standards maps to quickly visualize the impact of proposed changes. For example, delivery of first-class mail originating in Redlands, California would be affected as follows. Under the current standard, if I mail a party invitation at my local post office in the 92373 ZIP Code to a friend across town on a Tuesday before 4 pm, the current service standards map shows my friend will receive it the next day (Wednesday).
Looking at the projected service standards map, I can see that my friend would receive the invitation on Thursday under the proposed standard. It may be news to some that next-day service for the price of a stamp exists now, and as long as my party isn’t Wednesday evening, this example of the service impact isn’t a big deal.
If I mail the same invitation to a family member in Maryland, the delivery time stays the same (three days). Delivery service to a friend in the San Francisco Bay area goes from two days to three days.
These maps tell the story of what proposed service standard changes actually mean to the many individuals and businesses that use the USPS—consider the maps an example of government transparency in action. Is it baffling that it could take two days to deliver an invitation 3 miles but only one extra day to deliver it 3,000 miles? Yes. Considering the cost is the same, however—45 cents currently—perhaps minor inconvenience and head-scratching is acceptable.
The cost-reduction measures designed to return the USPS to profitability, and the plans for implementing them, are still being discussed and could change. The latest news reports state that the USPS has decided to “shrink” areas where next-day service is available (as opposed to eliminating next-day service wholesale all at once).
So while the exact degree to which delivery service will be impacted in different areas is still unknown, one thing is clear. GIS maps are a valuable tool for decision makers and for citizens who want to engage in the decision-making process.