Cloud helping Australia Post make sense of your abominable handwriting

Google Cloud Platform is helping decipher your, frankly terrible, handwriting

Australia Post is using cloud-based optical character recognition (OCR) to help decipher the semi-legible addresses scrawled on parcels and letters.

“There's a lot of people with really bad handwriting,” Australia Post’s chief information officer, John Cox, today told the Google Cloud Summit in Sydney. “We’ve just used a new beta API which just seen a 35 per cent increase in the ability to read all the mess that all of you guys are creating for us that you call handwriting.”

The CIO said that Australia Post has turned to Google Cloud to drive operational efficiency as well as improve customer experience as it comes to grips with significant growth in parcel deliveries, thanks to online shopping, but a big drop in traditional mail.

In 2010, Australia Post hit “peak mail,” with around 5 billion letters passing through its network, Cox said. Now, that figure has declined to around 2.1 billion.

“So think about a company that has just lost 60 per cent of its revenue base,” Cox said. “Our response to that has actually been riding the wave of eCommerce.”

As a consequence Australia Post’s revenue has grown, although margins have reduced.

In August, it announced a 2 per cent increase in full year revenue to $7 billion. However, group profit of $41 million represented a 67 per cent drop on the prior year

“This full year profit result is in line with that achieved three years ago, although masks the significant transformation from a letter business to a growing delivery and services organisation,” Australia Post said at the time.

Parcels and services represented 68 per cent of Australia Post's total revenue for FY19.

“We've been transforming to that parcel business as well as digital businesses,” Cox said. The latter has included financial and digital identity services.

“What that has meant for us is a real shift in the analytics that's required to give insights to our customers,” Cox said. “Customers previously weren't that fussed about when their mail was going to be delivered and tracking it. However, from a parcel perspective, there's a significantly increased demand to know where things are.”

To meet that demand, Australia Post has increasing instrumentation to deliver more data points about where parcels are in the delivery process.

In July 2018 it announced an 18-month, $300 million investment in parcel processing, much of it focused on increased automation. Cox said that as part of the program Australia Post had rolled out around 35,000 Android-based scanners.

“For the first time in our company's history, we've got a single platform that all of our frontline staff are using,” Cox said. “So that’s giving us lots of information and we're also putting in place telematics so that we can tell what is safe for our drivers, for our posties, and that's just this huge flow of data.”

For around the last 12 months that data has been fed into Google’s cloud.

“It took us 11 weeks to get it in place from when we decided we were going to do it when we actually went live,” Cox said. “And as a consequence, we were able to see things like whether a parcel should have been put on a vehicle -- so that the driver in the facility is getting real time ‘next best suggestions’, so that we actually are more likely to deliver the parcel on time.”

Cox said the speed with which Australia Post has been able to crunch telematics data was a “complete game changer,” with the organisation seeing a tenfold increase in processing speed since it began using GCP.

“So things that were running overnight in a batch, we’re actually doing in real time now,” the CIO said.

Australia Post is currently looking at using Google services for voice interaction, potentially employing Dialogflow.

“There’s so many things that we’re still experimenting with and expanding as we start to understand what our customers really want and use this to drive that insight,” the CIO said.

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