“Big data is a vital part of our future,” says John Cronin, CIO of Ireland’s postal network An Post, who is driving a variety of business intelligence, big data and internet of things strategies to transform postal delivery in Ireland.
It will come as a surprise to many who read this that the largest user of big data in Ireland today is An Post.
An Post serves more than 1.7m customers every week through a network of over 1,130 post offices as well as 2,000 PostPoint payment points at newsagents and supermarkets across the country.
It is Cronin’s job to ensure not only that letters and parcels arrive in the right places at the right time, but also to ensure that transactions ranging from paying bills, debit card transactions to ordering foreign currency all happens securely and instantly.
Foremost among Cronin’s strategies is transforming the existing postal service to serve tech-savvy consumers of the 21st century through innovative new services. This will only be possible by embracing big data.
‘The value of big data for us is we have created a system that frees people up to make business decisions, to innovate and create new ways to develop An Post’
– JOHN CRONIN, AN POST
To make this happen, An Post has implemented several Oracle technologies as part of its digital transformation strategy. This includes Oracle’s business intelligence suite foundation Edition, which provides same-day view of cash flow through an easy-to-use dashboard. The postal network will also use Oracle Advanced Analytics to minimise fraud with real-time alerts and access financial information rapidly at the touch of a button.
In particular, An Post has made innovative use of Oracle’s business intelligence and data warehousing systems to deliver efficiencies across a range of areas, including HR, mail processing and quality of service.
The Oracle business intelligence stack was deployed in partnership with Oracle platinum partner Vertice. Tony Cassidy from Vertice explains: “What we have built is a big data analytics platform that takes all the exadata being created at An Post and use Oracle advanced analytics, Oracle business intelligence tools and integration tools like Golden Gate and take any format of data – structured or unstructured – and derive pertinent, critical business information at any time that is readily available to the business.”
According to Cronin, the future for An Post involves creating innovative new services that resonate with the public but have a baseline of big data to act as a force multiplier.
John, how much data is created at An Post every day?
An Post has 1,130-plus post offices nationwide and each one of those is connected permanently to the GPO via digital leased lines or 3G or 4G or DSL. Every transaction that happens in a post office, whether it is the payment of a welfare transaction or a bill payment or payment of a Garda fine or the buying of foreign exchange currency are written into the local message store on the local Windows PC and then transmitted back up here to the GPO over pipes into the building and then replicated instantly in a mail centre on the outskirts of Dublin.
We process about 120m to 130m transactions a year through the post office network system. However, the number of messages which are created are about 2bn messages because a message consists of date, time, office name, counter position, teller name, type of transactions, such as a Vodafone bill payment, and then the exact amount being paid, whether debit card or cash.
Every interaction on a transaction is backed up for audit purposes. It could take 20 or 30 messages to complete a full transaction but these happen seamlessly in the background.
Then we have our mail processing centres around the country that handle in excess of 2m items per day, whether letters, parcels, packets, whatever.
The mail is sorted through the various sorting machines and then the mail is sorted along the different routes and the post persons call in every morning, pick up a mobile scanner, which has been charging overnight and pre-loaded with non-normal mail like parcels and packets to be delivered. They have all that information pre-loaded on their M2M network-connected handheld scanner and off they go delivering the mail on the route and as they get to specific locations where parcels and packets have to be delivered, knock on doors, signatures are captured and in seconds that information of completion of delivery is on the web.
How did An Post commence its journey into the realms of big data?
A number of years ago we decided we would go out to tender Europe-wide looking for a data warehouse solution and the Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise edition won the tender, and so began An Post’s journey into the world of business intelligence.
One of the first things we did with business intelligence (BI) was HR decided they wanted to be part of the action and, with more than 10,000 employees in the An Post group, they wanted to record everything to do with manpower management in the data warehouse.
That was rapidly followed by mail processing and quality of service. On a daily and nightly basis we extract data from upwards of 300 source systems, we do an ETL (extract, transform and load) into the data warehouse and then dashboards are available for each of the directorates in the whole mail operations area and HR area.
This was rapidly followed by a demand from finance that they wanted to be part of the action and we have a whole finance programme also included in the data warehouse as we speak in the whole area of non-pay.
By non-pay I am talking about when we raise a purchase order (PO) for consumables like ink cartridges, I am able to go in and track that from the day the PO is raised to the day the last item is delivered and the last invoices arrive on site. A year ago this would have taken 10 minutes to get the information that you now get at the touch of a button.
Our BI programme also moved from a Windows environment where we discontinued 12 Windows servers from HP and moved to the Oracle Exadata environment.
The final piece of the puzzle is the retail environment. With 130m transactions a year generating 2bn messages, the whole auditing and analytics around all of that is a substantial project. All of the archived data, which had been stored here until now, is now in our data warehouse and we are testing the hell out of it.
A lot has happened, a lot is happening. Dashboards are available every Monday morning in mail operations spaces right across the country and right down to the post person who delivers the mail. He or she sees how they are tracking on servers.
How An Post achieves service levels in the high 90s in terms of delivery is due to our BI systems and the buy-in by all of the staff to the warehouse and the solution we have in place today.
What kind of efficiencies are you recording?
The demands are rising and all it takes is to deliver one good programme and everybody wants to get involved.
We are doing a big piece on financial planning and budgeting and we are doing a major piece of advanced analytics as part of the retail programme, which will enable us to highlight as it is happening potential fraudulent activity, rather than historically looking back at a transaction, we can be looking at it as it is happening.
In terms of ETL, the impact it has had singularly on the overnight processing is nothing short of astonishing. For example, our track and trace system that handles all the movement of mail in and out of the country for delivery etc, that overnight process used to take nearly 11 hours. That now takes 36 minutes.
By the time the retail director comes back from lunch at 2pm he will know how his network will have performed up until lunchtime
How big is your IT organisation?
In my IT organisation, I have 150 people. When I became CIO four years ago it was nearly 200 people.
The business intelligence organisation consists of five An Post people and the rest of the team (eight people) are from Vertice and that can fluctuate depending on the demand. We look at it critically and if there is merit in doing a piece of work separate to the programme, like retail, it is good to yield to those demands because in the long term it saves us money.
You are embarking on a range of new projects driven by big data, what are they?
Big data is going to play a vital part in our future. Over the past number of years, the mail volumes have been in decline. In the last seven years, probably close to 30pc of our mail volumes have declined due to the advent of email and other electronic services. But that doesn’t mean An Post is in decline. Conversely, packages are on the rise thanks to consumers engaging in e-commerce. Our volume of parcels and packets has increased quite significantly over the last two years.
There are two new innovations from An Post being launched underpinned by technology. Our new delivery box service consists of a physical box that you buy for €69.99 that is big enough to hold parcels and packets (80pc of parcels delivered will fit in it). You register with An Post for the service and get a key; we have a master key. Once the service is activated, every day your mail will be delivered to the box and as the box is opened by the postal worker they scan the box when putting something in and then the customer will get an email saying you have mail.
We are entering the internet of things world, so this is going to evolve to enable new services. We have been running a pilot in four counties for the last three months and 2,000 of these boxes are installed in Kildare, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow.
In about six months time, there will be an added-value service to allow you to have packages collected and sent from the boxes. For example, if you get delivery of something from Boohoo.com and it is the wrong size, you will be able, through your delivery box, to return the product without having to go to the post office.
We are launching a new site called Returnmyshopping.ie and you will simply print your own label with a unique code and you will put that onto your packet and pop it into the box and when we are delivering mail the following day we can remove the parcel for pick up. We will scan that it is being collected, you will get an email to say it has been collected and also an email to say it has been delivered back to the original provider.
The next step is obviously to use the box as a way of sending post and parcels.
So that’s how we have brought An Post into the internet of things world in a practical way.
Another new service that we will be launching in March is AddressPal – the website is addresspal.ie.
One of our subsidiaries in the UK is a company called Air Business and every day they ship a container over to Dublin bringing in magazines and newspapers like the Financial Times and most days there is a lot of space. So we came up with an idea called AddressPal.
You register for this service on our website and you can buy goods on UK e-commerce sites like amazon.co.uk and your package will be delivered to your post office of choice for collection.
The expansion of that is to use our PostPoint network of over 2,000 sites, which would be your typical grocery stores like Spar or Centra around the country that are open 24-7 and late nights and that network will be added on later this year.
As An Post continues to digitally transform, what is next?
The value of big data for us is we have created a system that frees people up to make business decisions, to innovate and create new ways to develop An Post.
For us, we see the hybrid cloud as a logical next step because everyone in some shape or form is in the cloud.
We are testing archiving and backup via the Oracle data centre in Slough in the UK with non-business critical data that is fully encrypted and I think there is going to be a lot more done in this space over the coming 12 months.