Data standardisation in shipping and broking seems to be something of a chicken and egg situation
In a discussion that divided the room at yesterday’s Smart Solutions 3 forum, organised by Navigate Events in collaboration with the Baltic Exchange, it appeared that it is not the amount of information itself which is providing problems in the shipping industry, but the standardisation of that information, or lack thereof.
Panellists at the London forum were quick to identify email and other chat systems as their areas of interest in technology, which Emanuele Ravano, managing director of IFCHOR, called a “real problem”. He said: “I want an email system that can link all the information I need in my company to provide to the clients. I want to have instant access to all the information related to one transaction or one ship or one contract and so on and so forth because I will only transmit what is interesting and important to my clients.”
However, a delegate was just as quick to pick up that such an email system was discussed at the very first Smart Solutions forum, hosted two years ago. “My position was very strong at the first Smart Solutions,” said the delegate, “and that was that the lowest hanging fruit is right there for taking, and it’s free.
“All we need to do, because we all read a particular number in a cryptic little message and if you’re in the tanker industry you know it’s the pumping rate, if you’re in the dry market it’s the crane and so on, is to agree to a label to go on the front of that number that can be picked up, and put in the right place.”
“We need facts first, instead of something that looks at garbage and turns it into data.”
AXSMarine currently does this, but it is a closed, subscription-only service, which raised questions about the ownership of information, particularly whether this kind of information should be in the hands of the shareholders or a standard, put out there by an organisation such as the Baltic, for free.
“We shouldn’t have to subscribe to one technology or another,” said the delegate.
Mark Jackson, newly appointed chief executive of the Baltic Exchange, answered that although people expect information for free, how it is paid for behind the scenes is down to the people who are putting a value on the information that is being produced.
“Brokers that are developing their own systems that have that data themselves are putting a value on that data,” he said. “But it’s also a barrier for why there isn’t adoption across the industry. There is a balance. Rather than trying to get everybody to pay for something, including those who don’t really see value in it, you focus on the people who are willing to pay for maybe the secondary use of that data.
“That’s where the Baltic comes in. We recognise that, and also, we’re in a position to be that trusted person whereby we can sit across the top and have data policies with the people who are giving us the data. This is the model that we’re talking about. So you can easily say, somebody has got to pay for it but it’s actually a matter of saying no, is the right person paying for the data?”
The way forward
What would such a label look like then? According to maritime analyst Colin Cridland, an example of a simple label would be that anybody who is mentioning the name of the ship, put next to it the IMO number.
“That’s all we need – the IMO number,” he said. “Then, all the systems read the IMO number and have all the details of the ship on their own database. It amazes me that people don’t already use that unique identifier.”
Mr Cridland added that this was just one example of a label that instantly, everybody could use tomorrow, and would make everything to much quicker for the people in IT to try and read which ship it is.
The difficulty with this, however, is that the shipping industry is such a large and fragmented industry, it’s almost impossible to do alone, said Graham Piasecki, commercial director for Veson Nautical. Instead, he continued, Veson tries to tackle the problem from the other direction, “which is to leave your data unstructured and we will develop to structure that data and then share it in a structured manner”.
Of course, he added, Veson would be on board for there to be more standardisation. “It would certainly make our jobs a lot easier to connect our clients with their partners.”
Mike Powell, head of operations at tanker operator Union Maritime, said that Veson’s flipped approach is “the right way forward”. While he noted that some kind of mapping tool is relevant, he said that it is not key to all types of business. Mr Powell added that having a common platform across brokers, charterers, etc., is “aiming for the sky”.
“Veson’s approach is the right way to do it because I think the standard will emerge from that reiterated cycle,” he continued. “If you get the industry around a table to talk about this problem, your life will pass before you. It’s much better to do the unstructured going to the structured approach in terms of coming to a solution that everyone will benefit from.”
However, Mr Cridland championed facts first: “We need facts first, instead of something that looks at garbage and turns it into data.”
He continued: “You need to have a standard. If somebody had the IMO number, it would make life a lot easier. Unfortunately, not all ships have an IMO number but nonetheless it’s the right direction. I think what’s being asked of us, is that we should be looking at data or structure messaging at the very least, to restructure the message in a way that conforms to a uniform manner.”
Whether that starts with the Baltic or some other organisation remains unclear, but it certainly needs to start with somebody, he concluded. Otherwise, “you’re going to get vendors getting very clever with all their individual softwares and people don’t want to buy that”, he warned. “Why would you want to buy different ones with different solutions and results?”
A second delegate suggested that the answer could be found in a consortium. “As a group, we need to agree that there are certain areas where we can reduce the transaction costs and that benefits the volume of transacting and the way we transact, and we share that through the consortium,” he said.
This goes back to earlier concerns about how easily people from different parts of the industry could sit down and work together to come up with a solution. However, if that can be achieved, there is no reason why introducing a label and standardising the data in some way can’t be done in the next six months, if it’s agreed that would be a step in the right direction.
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