USPS Making the Case for GIS

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Fifty years ago, on July 1 1963, the United States Postal Service (USPS) introduced the Zone Improvement Plan Codes, more commonly known as ZIP Codes.  

Aimed at providing a more efficient way of sorting through billions of pieces of mail each year, ZIP Codes were created  in order to divide the country into coded delivery zones. From 1943 to 1963, annual mail volume had doubled to 66.5 billion pieces.

Report: The Untold Story of the ZIP Code

With the fiftieth anniversary of the ZIP Code, the Office of the Inspector General at the USPS has released a paper exploring ways to improve the ZIP code, “both to save postal costs and to enhance the opportunity for third party innovators to discover new uses and applications.”  

In the report, entitled “The Untold Story of the ZIP Code“, the executive summary recommends linking the USPS address database with GIS to create a more efficient ZIP Code system:

One such enhancement would be to combine the ZIP Code with the precision of geocodes (latitude and longitude coordinates). This could have a direct impact on the U.S. Postal Service’s bottom line by facilitating delivery route reconfiguration. Historically, the Postal Service has delivered mail via set delivery routes where each carrier visits the same homes every day. With the anticipated growth of parcel delivery, including the possibility of same-day delivery, the Postal Service will find it necessary to develop dynamic carrier routing. Combining the ZIP Code with the geocoding of addresses could ease the processing necessary to improve the efficiency of parcel delivery.

Another benefit of linking address geocodes to ZIP Codes would be to facilitate communication between the ZIP Codes and geographic information system (GIS) mapping software packages. Such software can define areas of the country not labeled through the addressing system, such as undeveloped land, by associating them with latitude and longitude coordinates. For example, the software could theoretically map high risk areas for sink holes or forest fires. Those risk areas could then be connected to ZIP Code and addressing information to notify residents of risks or identify the risk of developing these areas. Additionally, linking geocodes to ZIP Codes and addresses could help align government investments to serve public needs by assisting disaster recovery efforts, tracking population “flight paths” to unaddressed areas, and increasing the capability to map demographic information to surface areas.

Acknowledging within the report that “the Postal Service is a slow and accidental innovator”, I supposed it is unsurprising that the USPS is only now getting on the GIS bandwagon in terms of creating a more geographically accurate address database.  (This isn’t to say that the USPS has not worked with GIS at all but the only reference a search turned up was an article from Esri’s ArcNews Summer 2008 edition entitled, “United States Postal Service Fights Crime with GIS“).

Working with IBM to analyze the economic benefits of ZIP Codes outside of the mail delivery needs, the Postal Service estimates that third party use of its ZIP Code system adds around $10 billion in value across the country and cautions “if the Postal Service does not take the opportunity to link geocodes and ZIP Codes perhaps other organizations will no longer utilize ZIP Codes in mapping and grouping as they will not have the level of precision required.”

The Address Management System (AMS) is the Postal Service’s master database of addresses and represents the delivery point of every address within the United States that mail is delivered to.  In the report, it was noted, “As of December, 2012, the AMS had not been geocoded, and there were no plans to incorporate geocoding technologies.” The report outlines the potential benefits of geocoding the addresses with the AMS and integrating it within a GIS:

Geographic information system (GIS) mapping software packages, such as ESRI’s ArcGIS, provide spatial analysis for areas of the country potentially not labeled through the addressing system. These GIS mapping packages provide powerful analysis for critical society needs. For example, tectonic shifts can be mapped to identify high risk earthquake areas. If the high risk areas could be easily linked to communities through addresses and ZIP Codes, public community notification would be eased and value might be gained. Similar applications include emergency planning, weather hazard identification like fire or flood hazard zones, and community planning. These are just a few practical solutions these GIS mapping applications can provide. These GIS applications categorize space through geocodes and if they could be easily linked to the AMS, unforeseen value might be recognized.

Mr. ZIP was introduced in 1963 as a way of acclimating Americans to the new ZIP Code system.
Mr. ZIP was introduced in 1963 as a way of acclimating Americans to the new ZIP Code system.


Understanding and mapping ZIP Codes
Information about where to download GIS data for ZIP codes.  Also described is Ben Fry’s zipdecode and Robert Kosara’s ZipScribble map.

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