Postal Service tests handwriting recognition system

New software that can read handwriting is beginning to help speed up the mail sorting process at the U.S. Postal Service. The innovative technology could help other agencies with manual paper processing.

The Postal Service has been researching ways to improve mail sorting efficiency for more than 10 years. USPS issued a contract to researchers at the State College of New York at Buffalo to develop the handwriting recognition technology. It was first launched in 1997 right before the Christmas holiday season, one of the busiest times of the year at USPS. "There was a good bit of pressure to get it out before Christmas," said Ed Kuebert, manager of image and telecommunications technology at USPS.

One year later, an estimated 400 million pieces of mail were automatically routed during the Christmas season alone using the handwriting recognition technology, said June Eva Peoples, vice president of marketing at RAF, one of the companies that fine-tuned the software for use in the postal system. Without the handwriting technology, USPS would have had to manually enter ZIP codes on the into postal computers, and then have them verified at off-site encoding centers.

The new technology has saved the Postal Service at least $90 million in its first year in the field, Peoples said. "It's been a very high payback program," Kuebert said.

Handwritten addresses are difficult to sort by machine, Peoples said, not necessarily because of sloppy handwriting, but because people write all over the envelope. Machines have a hard time segmenting handwritten addresses into their components, such as ZIP code or street address, because very few people print addresses neatly in a prescribed format. The new technology helps by zeroing in on an address block. It then seeks out city/state combinations, ZIP codes and street addresses until an eleven-digit ZIP code can be assigned to the mail piece.

The technology is not yet perfect. With handwritten addresses, it is accurate 30 to 40 percent of the time, Peoples said. Machine-printed mail, however, has a much higher accuracy range, she said.

USPS has an incentive-based contract with Lockheed Martin and RAF for software upgrades, Kuebert said. According to Peoples, the technology is constantly improving. "There's some wonderful things in the future here," she said.

One practical use of the technology is for form processing. "The same core recognition technology used at the USPS is running inside our forms processsing products," Peoples explained, "and every federal agency is forms-driven at some level."

For example, the IRS could use form recognition to automate tax submissions. Similarly, the Social Security Administration could automate the processing of W2 forms.

More than anything, Peoples explained, the technology is useful for improving customer service. "It reduces the mistakes made by human data entry and allows accurate data to be entered into a system faster," she said. Ultimately, she said, these benefits translate into better customer service.

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