PHOENIX – Without leaving their cubicles, U.S. Postal Service sleuths in Glendale solve more than a million mail-delivery mysteries daily for post offices nationwide. Their wits and their computers are their only tools.
Sloppy handwriting and incomplete addresses, it turns out, almost succeed where snow, rain, heat and gloom of night fail in staying mail carriers from completing their rounds. But those hard-to-read addresses usually don’t slow carriers because data-conversion operators using their best detecting skills are at work around the clock at the USPS Glendale Remote Encoding Center, save for the 10 hours it’s closed on Sundays.
The Glendale center is one of five in the United States – there were 55 when the postal service opened them in 1995 – devoted to interpreting scrawls and squiggles, blurs, smudges, missing information and otherwise ambiguous addresses.
In other words, the stuff that stumps the postal service’s sophisticated optical character-recognition software.
“This work makes me take a few extra minutes when I address my own envelopes,” says Debra Napier, one of more than 700 data-conversion operators, called keyers for short, employed at the site.
She’s seated in the midst of long rows of cubicles in a room adorned by little more than signs with U.S. cities’ names. Her eyes rarely stray from her computer.
Electronic images of envelopes sitting in 41 mail-processing plants across the U.S. flash onscreen, one after another, calling on her ability to decipher the shaky handwriting of a letter writer with arthritis or to see past the stickers obscuring an address. Twelve years as a teacher prepared her well for this job.
Napier also has learned a thing or two along the way. When addressing Christmas or birthday cards, she painstakingly prints rather than writing in cursive. She uses white envelopes even for Christmas cards, because addresses are hard to read on dark backgrounds. And forget silver ink.
Although most of the mail that keyers puzzle over is hand-addressed, they also see pieces printed with ink cartridges long overdue for replacement or displaying printer-produced addresses haphazardly positioned on envelopes.
In most cases, a machine at a mail-processing plant reads the address on an envelope, sprays on an ink barcode and sends the envelope on its way, keyer Steve Karr says. When the machine fails to read the address, an electronic image of the envelope is sent to a remote encoding center.
In the Glendale facility, the fastest keyers, like Karr, may handle an eye-blurring 900 to 1,000 images in an hour. Keyers succeed with as many as 75 percent of the pieces they process, says Chuck Van Dyke, manager of the Glendale Remote Encoding Center.
Aided by the Postal Service’s more than 2 petabytes of online data (think 4,000 years-plus of songs on your MP3 player), keyers examine the slightest clues – two digits of a ZIP code, a street name without house numbers, the first letter of a state abbreviation – and draw conclusions.
The goal is turning around each piece in no more than 20 minutes, Van Dyke says.
But the process usually is far speedier. Advances in technology have made the postal system’s optical scanning equipment capable of reading 95 percent of handwritten envelopes, up from 2 percent when the centers opened, Van Dyke says.
With demand for their work decreasing, three of the remaining remote encoding centers will be closed, the Glendale facility in May 2010.
Still, even the most advanced optical scanning and the best efforts of data-conversion operators fail at times to divine a letter’s destination. Then, once more, a human must intervene.
A letter addressed “Jane Doe, Second House Around the Corner from the Barber Shop, St. Peter, MN”?
That will go to Minnesota, where a mail carrier in St. Peter knows exactly whose mailbox to tuck the letter into.