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Another reason Twitter and UPS are poster companies for the digital age

If you had to pick two companies to symbolize the digital age, you could do worse than picking UPS and Twitter.

I can already hear the arguments: Twitter, sure. But UPS? Come on. The army of brown-clad drivers in brown-colored box trucks? What do they have to do with the digital revolution?

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Pretty much everything. Ever since I read Tom Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” I’ve thought of UPS, once United Parcel Service, as a technology company. It turns out that the company that was all about parcels also knows a heck of a lot about packets — as in switching.

In fact, the company is a swirl of technology-enabled logistics — directing pizza trucks across country, moving most everything you can imagine from coast to coast and guiding those brown trucks down your street.

And now its latest technological initiative (free summary) as described in The Wall Street Journal: Orion, a computer platform developed to figure out the most efficient way to deliver packages in a shipping landscape that has become incredibly more complicated by the rise of e-commerce.

Orion sifts through the average of 120 daily stops that each UPS driver makes and comes up with the most efficient route out of a mind-boggling number of possibilities that takes into account customer preferences for delivery times, traffic rules etc. How mind boggling? The number of possibilities is a 199-digit number. For reals.

“Even if an optimal answer exists,” the Journal notes, “the human mind will never figure it out.”

But an algorithm will — and it should be a highly-paid algorithm. The charting chore, UPS says, will save the company as much as $400 million a year.

Twitter, of course, is the way we all communicate. OK, the way some of us communicate, some of the time. It has its own 2015 problem: So-called trolls who badger, harass and attempt to intimidate those who disagree with them.  And yes, Twitter’s solution, like UPS’s answer, involves algorithms.

But what’s notable about both these efforts, by both these companies that are synonymous with the digital age, is that neither is looking to algorithms alone.

Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust & safety, was fairly candid in a Q & A with The Wall Street Journal about the problem of harassment on Twitter. Maybe not as candid as CEO Dick Costello who wrote to employees that the company “sucked” at tackling abuse and that actually it had sucked at it for years.

Harvey acknowledged the difficulty in reining in abusive people on the Internet, but added that the company was working on the problem, including trying to figure out how to increase the role of law enforcement in the issue. Then The Journal noted that Costello said he intended to make it harder for Internet trolls to level abuse on users.  Then the news outlet asked Harvey about algorithms.

“WSJ: Can an algorithm solve this?

“Ms. Harvey: I don’t think that this is something that can be solved solely by software or solely by people. It has to be a combination of the two. We’ve made some improvements in terms of how we can process reports (of abuse). There is so much around context and intent. All those sorts of things make it really complicated (for an algorithm alone to assess) but (software is) absolutely something that we can use as an amplifier for the work that people are doing.”

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And UPS? Sure, the company has invested 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars in Orion, according to The Journal, but you know what? If drivers don’t want to use it, they don’t have to. They can rely on their own experience and intuition, especially when it comes to road repairs, accidents and judgment calls on the safest way to run the route. Though UPS apparently encourages drivers to use Orion.

It’s a tension reminiscent of the one between London cab drivers, who commit to memory the complicated streets of central London, and those advocating for GPS guidance.

Both Twitter and UPS are embracing a model that will no doubt be the accepted strategy for nearly every company in the 21st century: marrying the best abilities of the machine with the best ability of humans to come up with the best solution.

It’s an idea we wrote about recently in “Why Can’t We be Friends? The Case for Human+Machine.”  And it’s a theme that I can’t help seeing practically every time I turn around.

Photo of UPS truck by Atomic Taco and Twitter sand sculpture by Rosaura Ochoa published under a Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.