Australia Post shipping insights through Google Cloud analytics play

The postal service is aiming to have complete transparency over the entire delivery process, and wants to use its rich data to give customers what they actually want.

Australia Post is 210 years old. While its bread and butter is in delivering mail, the postal service is vastly different to the one that was stood up in 1809, and with the mandate from government to always be profitable, AusPost had to turn to other revenue streams.

Speaking with ZDNet about how Australia Post has been "riding the wave of ecommerce" over the couple of years, CIO John Cox said the biggest change for the organisation has been the use of the internet and the reduction of mail -- 60% of its revenue base has been lost to the mail decline.

"What we've been doing, really over the last seven years, is looking at opportunities to grow our revenue and our profit -- we knew 10 years ago when we hit peak mail that mail was going to decline pretty consistently," Cox said.

"Part of that strategic thinking was how do we diversify to create new revenue and profitability streams, so we looked at items that were adjacent to products that we were already delivering."  

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The postal service also performs twice as many over-the-counter payments as the largest bank -- and that amount has increased as it picks up regional banking services the likes of the Big Four have handed over.

"There's a lot of things we've been experimenting with to see that revenue and profit," he said.

That also involves overhauling its legacy IT.

"We've building our IT systems really since the 60s -- we've got a decent amount of legacy as a consequence," he said. "Over the last three years we've actually been pushing into simplification as a starting point, we've taken out about 350 of our applications to drive to common platforms, and when we look at cloud, we're really looking at what are the capabilities ... to leapfrog into the future."

This drove Australia Post to partner with Google. 

Cox said the organisation opted for the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) mainly for its automation, analytics, and machine learning capabilities. It went live in January this year from a production sense -- from inception to go-live for the organisation's first dataset was 10 weeks.

"We wanted to really leverage the scalability, the availability, and the rich functions that come from what they're investing in terms of the machine learning capabilities, we've basically been migrating our data into that platform -- insights around our transactions, our financials, all of our 'events' in real time," Cox told ZDNet.

Australia Post has deployed 35,000 Android-based scanners. Each time a parcel is scanned, it creates an "event"-- all of this information is handed to the GCP. Cox said the organisation is able to process parcels at least 10-fold faster than when it was using older technology.

The organisation has invested around AU$300 million every year, for the last few years, in increasing automation of scanning in attempt to gain visibility across its network, with a target of getting 100% visibility across all of its Express parcels in time for peak season this year.

The postal service is also playing with richer events, such as vehicle telematic insights. This includes feeds from cameras on vehicles that can help with, for example, determining pathways and routes for deliveries.

"As part of our transition to the GCP, we also increased the network from our facilities -- we're also doing a broader network transformation -- but what it also did was shift our architecture from being an overnight batch processing one to being real-time, so we can now get feeds from our scanners in our facilities and identify whether a parcel should have been on a vehicle so that we can improve the service delivery," the CIO continued.

The government-owned entity is also using some of Google's image APIs for handwriting recognition, adding to its push to have transparency over the end-to-end parcel delivery process.

"Handwriting is actually incredibly complicated when it's free-form and unstructured data," he said.

"Quite a rich set of capabilities, some of which I would say we're in experimental phase, and others where were able to get, in real time, incredibly fast insights around data activities that were taking hours are now taking seconds," he added on the organisation's overall experimentation with Google Cloud.

According to Cox, its transformation has been driven by the customer request to simply receive parcels faster and in a more transparent manner.

"That's why we've been driving that underlying automation, fixing that up, and then the actual analytics that comes from that, we've been using essentially to improve the service, so while it's not on the surface a mobile app or some other interaction, it's actually what customers are asking for and making the biggest difference," Cox said.

The next level of customer experience Australia Post is anticipating is voice assistant-type interaction, but on the broader cloud piece, Cox said the organisation will be focusing on increasing its analytics capability, leveraging more machine learning across a whole range of use cases.

"It's got a lot of potential, and I don't think I can even imagine what we can do with it yet," he concluded.

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