How the US Postal Service reads terrible handwriting

How the US Postal Service reads terrible handwriting

At the Remote Encoding Center in Salt Lake City, keyers process 1.2 billion images of mail every year. It’s a more difficult job than I thought.

Edited by Michelle Martin: https://twitter.com/mrsmmartin
Thanks to Zack from JerryRigEverything for being the camera op: https://youtube.com/jerryrigeverything

I’m at https://tomscott.com
on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tomscott
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and on Instagram as tomscottgo

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41 Responses

  1. Tom Scott says:

    That 1.2 billion images stat seemed unbelievable, but it makes sense when you break down the numbers: it works out to an average of 38 images per second, which is about right for the number of staff there!

    • Dennis says:

      It was Royal Mail that started the revolution using OCR to read addresses, starting years before anyone else, and they were good too, very good.

    • SomeGuy's Garage says:

      1.2 billion/year from a computational standpoint isn’t that bad. There are IoT systems out there handling into the millions of data points per second.

    • Human Man says:

      You should be in jetlag the game

    • AzraelThanatos says:

      The scary thing is with their cursive chart is that there’s a major variant that was pushed for a few years where the M’s and N’s were shifted from the older standard so the old N’s look like the other M’s with it…

    • Santiago Perez says:

      Have you have it slated to visit a dead letter office?

  2. TheBushdoctor68 says:

    About 40 years ago, I wanted to send a letter to a girl in America because she appeared in our Dutch newspaper for having saved a swan that was shot with an arrow.
    All I had was her first name, the name of her town and the picture from the newspaper, being an optimistic kid, I just glued the photo on the envelope, added her name and town, and to my amazement the letter got delivered: A few weeks later I received a thank-you note in return.
    Kudos to the US postal service.

    • Jo says:

      @Malkontent1003 Actually it has a lot to do with politics. Some folks (mostly republicans) really really want to make a profit off a service that was never designed to be profitable. So their solution? Slash the budget.

    • Heymoe666 says:

      If some clerk throws the letter to (or a Remote Encoding Site worker keys the code for) “Postmaster” – which is 9998, it will get to the clerks in the station with local knowledge.

    • baylinkdashyt says:

      “Mr Spock, Hollywood CA”

      They delivered that, in 1965 or so.

    • Adam Sheppard says:

      @Malkontent1003 funny you should mention that. I’ve heard terrible things about USPS. American peeps who post internationally to me are much more concerned about the US side of things than the UK (where I live) side of things.

      I know UK doesn’t have the best postal service, especially not since privatisation, but it could be much worse (I’m looking at you, Italy)

  3. Just Me says:

    Top tip from an ex-postie in the UK: Don’t use red envelopes, but if you do, always write the address on a white sticker or label and attach that. The lasers that read the address can’t pick up the writing so well with a red background. They have a similar problem with metallic envelopes, so the sticker rule applies here, too. If they can’t be read by machine, they have to be hand sorted, and this potentially adds days to the delivery time. We would get lorry loads at Christmas and Valentine’s, and we were just an average sized town.
    Also, always put a return address, even if it is just your house number and postcode. That simple act could save your item from being permanently lost if the delivery address is damaged/defaced/missing.

  4. Hippie McFake says:

    Cool topic, but a few things I’d have loved to see:
    1. The difficult examples you guys kept mentioning
    2. A pro doing it
    3. How do the people there like their job? To me it seems soul crushing but maybe they enjoy the flow state?
    4. What’s the bottleneck for automated processing? Machine learning has gotten so good that I wonder what kind of image can be processed in four second by a human but not by a machine given that there are billions of training examples.

    • Ruckus 801 says:

      @m Ryan doesn’t key mail. He’s a Manager. And Posties who work at the REC are often disparaged, slurred, belittled by others who actually touch mail at their job. Many of the professional DCOs wouldn’t want to be on camera, for those and other reasons.

    • RichardM8422 says:

      I can imagine it being an interesting job, but 4 seconds per mail is far too demanding, I bet they have a high turnover of staff.

    • Dannii L says:

      @TheSteelRodent I can attest, that over the years my handwriting has degraded to that of a small child due to lack of use.

    • Chris Rabins says:

      1. Just worse handwriting or the address being obscured in some way.
      2. I expect it looks no different than any other typing job.
      3. We can have headphones on if your stats are decent, so I listen to audiobooks and podcasts all day and it’s great for me.
      4. AFAIK they haven’t come up with a computer that is good at novelty or inference. If all the mail was printed than the image processing would be entirely automated, but handwriting is chaotic enough that some still stumps the system.

    • Bobby M says:

      @Justanother Nobody that’s a very modern mindset. Most jobs in history have been repetitive and not requiring great cognitive skill. Jobs don’t have to be that way. They can just be jobs. When the only jobs left will be those that can’t be automated, we’ll have quite a problem.

  5. Kit Khat says:

    The United States Postal Service does a lot of work to ensure that mail goes where it needs to! And they’re funded through revenue from stamps and service fees…. so if you’d like to support the USPS, they have an online store where they sell stamps (of course) as well as collectors items, cards, puzzles, toys, and even clothes! 😀

  6. TBot Alpha says:

    This reminds me of something Terry Pratchett wrote into one of his Discworld novels. The Ankh-Morpork Postal Service had a Dead Letter Office, which dealt with mail that was addressed… creatively, let’s say, by the frequently lazy, illiterate and/or insane citizens of Ankh-Morpork. The joke being that the staff weren’t just reading illegible addresses, but also actively interpreting the vague details to figure out where the sender actually intended the letter to go. The people employed in the Office were noted for being particularly sharp; the kinds of people who would complete cryptic crosswords in their heads for fun.

    • Wendi Nicole Munson says:

      This is EXACTLY where my mind went!

    • TBot Alpha says:

      @Katie Moudry Almost certainly the latter. The Discworld novels are full of references to things in real life, though Pratchett obviously pushed the idea of a Dead Letter Office just a step further into comic absurdity.

    • Katie Moudry says:

      I thought of this too and now I’m wondering if Terry came up with the Dead Letter Office independently, or whether he was inspired real life Dead Letter Offices like this one! Knowing his immense knowledge of obscure things I would chance the latter!

  7. PlayDeeBug says:

    i worked at one of these facilities in the 90’s in texas. Our location processed all mail going in and out of colorado. You had to train for 2 weeks learning the short cuts for zip codes and street addresses. Once you started encoding real mail.. your computer was randomly monitored to check your accuracy. If, by the end of the month you had something like a 97% accuracy.. you would get a bonus. I was obsessed with being fast an accurate so I had a friend write a program in javascript that mimicked the program at work. I would practice for hours at home. all in all.. it was a fun job

    • shadow kyber says:

      @bzqp2 I wonder that about truck driver shows. Is it really truck drivers watching it after driving all week, just to come home to relax to MORE trucks or is it just average people watching? Although if they made a show about my job I think I might watch it

    • FAT9L says:

      @Albert Batfinder that’s me as well. Nothing wrong with it, the creatives need us as much as we need them.

    • bzqp2 says:

      Jeez, it’s like playing a trucker sim in your free time after driving a truck for 12 hours.

    • Albert Batfinder says:

      100% agree. Certain brains (yours and mine!) get a minor buzz out of solving problems quickly, accurately and efficiently. That’s what’s going on here.

    • Sheets_on_far says:

      Beaumont?

  8. History Dose says:

    I feel like I’ve subconsciously had this question since I was five years old

  9. PsychoLucario says:

    I wonder if they kept the images over the years, it’d be a very very interesting database to study the differences in handwriting between the 90s and now especially as more people don’t write in cursive much anymore

    • MCLooyverse says:

      @dwiedemann There are many cursive fonts. My Grandma’s cursive is illegible, mine is just connected print.

    • Mobin92 says:

      They probably aren’t allowed to for privacy reasons.

    • Sheets_on_far says:

      The training module was written in the 90’s. There’s a mock address for ‘Bill and Ted, 1 Excellent Way’. We still use it.

    • dwiedemann says:

      I found it odd that they had a “job aid” of what cursive letters look like, but after thinking about it, more people now (especially those who are younger), probably aren’t familiar with the upper and lower case cursive for every letter.

  10. Max White says:

    I like how from an outside perspective this seems like the less advanced side of mail management when 99% of it is done with literal walls of computers, but from an internal view the humans here are the most advanced handwriting interpreting systems available that the computers have to fall back on.

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