What the mail can show us about economic growth

Analyzing postal patterns sheds light on economic development.
Desi Hristova uses the mail to study economic development.

Sending written messages over long distances has a long history. Ancient Persians, Chinese and Egyptians all had postal systems that date back thousands of years BC. Apparently the ancient Romans even had next day delivery

For centuries after, the mail was essential communication-- important matters of politics and trade, love letters and correspondence to family far away, business letters, and of course those pesky bills.

But in everyday life for many of us, email, online bill payments, and social media have replaced much of what we used physical mail for. So, it might surprise you to know that a LOT of mail still zips around the globe.

Desi Hristova is finishing up her PhD in the Computer Lab at the University of Cambridge, and she thinks you can use the mail to study economic development. That's right. Desi uses the pattern of regular, old physical mail sent between countries as a stand-in for economic activity. 

In the past on Spark, we've talked about what's called Social Network Analysis: how researchers can learn things not by studying the content of people's interactions, but by studying the pattern of it. In the developed world today, you can follow digital communication trails.

But that's harder in much of the developing world. And that's where the mail comes in.

"The postal network has a unique penetration in places where other types of communication or data might not be available." explains Desi.

 Desi thought that the pattern of letters and packages flowing between countries could serve as a kind of proxy, or rough measure of economic activity. Turns out there are electronic postal records for about 200 countries going back to 2010. By looking at that data, you could see how much mail traffic increased, and by extension, how much economic progress was being made.

The hope is that this kind of data can measure progress in international development, and more broadly, maybe techniques like network analysis can be used to measure things that might otherwise be difficult to track.

In addition to its use in tracking economic development, you can imagine all kinds of uses for network analysis. As more of our interactions - our communications, our social networks, our mail delivery - is tracked electronically, the more we can learn by studying the patterns that data leaves behind.