By day, Michael Ravnitzky is the Chief Counsel to the Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, but private citizen Ravnitzky still thinks like the aeromechanical engineer he once was.
He told Federal News Radio a thought hit him one day “that these trucks are going all over the country and we were looking at what is the value of the postal network and how can you measure it, and I then realized quickly that you could do other things while these trucks were going down the road and not in a trivial way, but in a very important and valuable way.”
Ravnitzky said postal trucks would have sensors, and since they go everywhere, “they could measure a lot of important things like weather and pollution, air quality, homeland security information like radiation levels – background radiation. They could measure cell phone and broadcast signal quality to make sure that the broadcast networks are operating properly. they could assess road quality so we know which roads need fixing first.”
Sure, the same thing could be done with taxis, buses or police cars, said Ravnitzky, but postal routes are “really well spread out and also it’s a single national owner. The Postal Service owns all of these vehicles and maintains them centrally and they have a very well trained workforce”.
“For example, let’s say you wanted to monitor near particular types of chemical plants or nuclear plants or in particular city locations. You could select that very easily and undertake it because the Postal Service is basically everywhere,” said Ravnitzky.
As for the customers? Ravnitzky said there were two ways this could happen. “Initially I thought that federal agencies would be the ones that might want to work with the Postal Service.” Delivery vehicles with sensors could be used as a resource for collecting information and mapping for the National Weather Service and EPA and DHS, or Transportation. “But then I also realized the Postal Service can simply offer this as a moving real estate, basically like the top of their buildings, roofs where you might want to put antennas up or something. They can offer the space for any customer that might want to put a sensor on there.”
So far, the idea has been mostly well received, said Ravnitzky.
I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of interest from people who work in the narrow area of geographic information systems, but more generally people in the postal community outside the postal service seem very favorably inclined to this and there was an article published in Popular Science this month that talked about it and I got a tremendous amount of feedback from that.
But some people are “worried that this could be used for purposes that are inconsistent with the Postal Service’s mission,” he said. “For example, they don’t want Postal trucks spying on people, they don’t want (the trucks) collecting inappropriate information or taking pictures or listening in on people, and I think there would have to be some careful oversight to make sure that anything that’s done is something that everybody agrees with.”
“Measuring the weather and pollution and radiation levels, I think everyone could agree with that. Taking pictures of the street and doing other things for law enforcement purposes people would not agree with, generally, so there’s a line there that has to be kept in mind.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.