As someone with execrable handwriting, I always have to remind myself to slow down and take great care on the (increasingly rare) occasion of addressing an envelope or a package. But what happens to those pieces of mail where that extra care is not taken (or something happens to the envelope like it gets wet) and the address is illegible? The answer offers a chance to see how much optical character recognition (OCR) technology has improved over the last 25 years.

The video below offers a visit to the last existing Remote Encoding Center (REC) in the US. This is where your mail (or at least an image of your mail) gets sent if the machines at your local mail processing plant can’t read the label. In 1997, there were 50 such centers, now there’s just one REC. In 1997, those 50 RECs processed around 19 billion pieces of mail per year, whereas the remaining center now only handles around 1.2 billion pieces. The reason is not a decline in mail volume, rather it’s how good the OCR machines have become, resulting in less undeliverable mail.

The process is interesting as well, humans sit at specialized keyboards and figure out the writing on each piece of mail in around 4 seconds, encode it, and move on to the next piece. So please think of these folks the next time you hastily scratch out an envelope.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.