How the US Postal Service Reads Unreadable Mail

The ever-adventurous Tom Scott visited the USPS Remote Encoding Center in Salt Lake City, Utah to learn how the agency deals with mail addressed in unreadable 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. 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!

Scott spoke with manager Ryan Bullock, who explained that the center opened in 1994, and is the last of its kind within the United States Postal Service. Bullock also showed Scott how to operate the technology that reads the unreadable.

We’re in the last Remote Encoding Center in the United States. Back in 1997, when we had 55 RECs open, all of those RECs combined keyed 19 billion images. The OCR technology is so good that, in 2021, as the last REC remaining, we only keyed 1.2 billion images. Right now, we have about 810 employees here.Shortly, we’re going to be teaching Tom how to process some of this mail.

Scott found the task to be more difficult than it appeared.

It’s much tougher than I thought it was going to be to keep everything in your head. And this is easy handwriting. Nothing here has been blurred.