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Diginomica – An Post new approach to Big Data Analysis

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By the time you read this, John Cronin, CIO of Ireland’s national postal service An Post, will have taken delivery of new refills for his air-powered wine bottle opener.

Cronin ordered the carbon dioxide refill cartridges from last weekend but, like many items sold on the site, they aren’t available for direct delivery to the Republic of Ireland. Instead, Cronin’s using a brand new An Post service, AddressPal.

The service works like this: users register for the service online, enabling them to order goods from e-commerce sites including Amazon, for delivery to a UK-based subsidiary of An Post. From there, the package is transported to Ireland by An Post to the customer’s preferred post office. The customer is notified of its arrival by email and/or text message and they can pick it up from the post office at a cost of €3.50 per item.

It’s through the introduction of new services like this that An Post’s management team hopes the organisation can remain relevant, even as traditional mail volumes plummet. According to Cronin, these have dropped by almost one-third over the last seven years:

But An Post isn’t sitting here, waiting to die. An Post is alive and thriving. We recognise that the world is changing, that we need to be innovative and that we need to be a leader in the whole big data space, because the new services we’re introducing create huge, huge, huge volumes of data.

In other words, where once An Post’s main business was the physical movement of letters and packages around a network of sorting offices, post offices, homes and businesses, it’s now the movement of data around electronic networks that connect computers based in these locations.

E-commerce converted

At the heart of much of this electronic activity is Escher Group’s Riposte peer-to-peer messaging software, Cronin explains. Every transaction performed in one of An Post’s 1,100-plus post offices – a banking deposit, a bill payment, a foreign exchange purchase or the renewal of a firearms license, for example – is represented as a Riposte message that provides details of date, time, post office, counter position, teller, type of transaction and payment type.

Similarly, all transactions made by customers through An Post’s e-commerce channel are converted to Riposte-type messages and stored on the same servers at the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin’s O’Connell Street.

The challenge now is to organise that data so that it can be analysed in ways that deliver the most insight in the shortest time possible. This will enable An Post to up its game when it comes to monitoring service quality, benchmarking internal performance and spotting fraud, not to mention evaluating the uptake of new services. Says Cronin:

Our BI initiative is probably the most significant initiative at An Post in the last ten years.

Much work has already been done, in partnership with consulting and managed services partner Vertice. Data from mail operations (largely collected from the handheld scanners used by around 4,500 postal operatives daily) is already fed into an Oracle data warehouse at GPO (and replicated to another site on the outskirts of Dublin), along with data from An Post’s human resources and finance operations.

The big push now is to get all the data created in the company’s retail operations into the data warehouse, too – a programme that Cronin says has already passed the halfway point.

In order to meet the challenges of scalability and fast response times, An Post has recently undertaken a replatforming of the data warehouse. This previously ran in a Microsoft/HP environment, but is now based on an Oracle stack, comprising Exadata for compute/storage, the 12C database, GoldenGate middleware and Oracle Advanced Analytics.

This high-performance platform, Cronin says, is already having a significant impact on the time it takes not just to load data into the warehouse, but also to extract it again in the form of meaningful reports and dashboards. It’s also helping he and his team to respond faster to demand from the business for new views of data:

One of the great things about the Exadata environment is that, when a request comes in for a new database to be created, it no longer takes two days to do that. It can be created in a matter of minutes. We do a lot of prototyping here and the Exadata environment has saved us substantial amounts of money and time and effort. OK, so we spent money on it – but it allows us to focus our resources on creating value for the business for all of the new initiatives that are coming down the line and will keep us going in future.

There are more of these initiatives than he can possibly list or is permitted to reveal at this stage, Cronin says. But he’s already looking forward to taking personal advantage of yet another data-rich service that just launched this week – Delivery Box – for all his e-commerce orders of goods that can be delivered to Ireland.

Delivery Box takes the form of a sizeable wall-mounted, weather-resistant box for homes and businesses, which can be opened only by An Post staff or the keyholder, into which online deliveries and letters are placed once they’ve been smart-scanned.

At this point, the customer is alerted by email and/or text that a delivery has been made – no more hanging around at home, waiting for a knock on the door, and no more ‘sorry you were out’ slips and standing in line at the sorting office.

Any day now, Cronin’s already expecting a new iPhone cover to turn up in the Delivery Box he installed at his own home last weekend. This type of convenience is what millions of customers, just like him, are coming to expect from a modern postal service, he says:

It’s more elegant, it’s smarter – and it’s really innovative.

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