It would be smart for shipping if data fields and exchanges were standardised. But with the great diversity of the industry and ineptitude of regulators, there is little chance that a worldwide data exchange standard will ever be agreed. There are also too many competitive advantages for IT platform and software suppliers to gain from preventing any agreement to be made. However, this does not stop the solution providers from calling for standards.
At a Smart Solutions conference in London last week, software developers, solution providers and platform hosts were calling for a standardised method of sharing data. They urged the shipping sector to agree on the method of sharing data between different programs, and between shipowners, managers, charters, financiers, traders and any other stakeholders in the industry.
Data, whether it originates from the ship, owner, charterer or cargo trader, needs to be accessible to those who need it. Data needs to be stored in the right place, to be secure and provide information to users. It will also be transferred between different servers, operating systems and programs. Most of the data will be proprietary, so the owner will not want to share, except with those who they want to view it. There will also be numerous types of information within reports and transactions, which means an exchange format must not be too restrictive.
The difficulty of attempting any form of standardisation is it may need to cover a multitude of different exchanges. From machinery condition and daily ship operations, to charterparty information and financial transactions, broker notes, inspections – there are many more. So the question is where to begin.
There was general consensus at the conference that the standards need to cover only the basic information in an exchange. Delegates agreed that there are millions of transactions that have very similar formats that could be written in a standard format. There were also suggestions that master noon reports from ships could be standardised. Some thought noon reports would be phased out, to be replaced with regular ship-shore data updates. Even more reason for the industry to thrash out a standard.
Another place to begin is agreeing to formal codes for ships, ports and types of cargo. Doing this would ease the difficulties of transferring information. The Baltic Exchange put itself forward for co-ordinating these standards, but it would need agreement from other industry associations. The IMO number for ships could be used, but what about the thousands of vessels that do not have IMO numbers? Having formal vessel identity codes would also help navigation aids such as the Automatic Identification System.
There is already a way of coding ports into three letters, similar to the way airports are coded worldwide. So there are some easy ways for the industry to make progress. But there are no codes for cargo. The next step could be to create standard data fields in reports, but this would need the assistance of willing software vendors, as there is no vendor with enough market power to drive standardisation. So the data fields formatting issue needs to be addressed at IMO, or another UN organisation.
Standard data and ship route exchange is being studied by IMO for its e-navigation implementation strategy. This is probably one of the most complex data exchanges in terms of information. Nonetheless, it is seen as a method of reducing the risk of maritime accidents, or confusion on the voyage intentions of ship masters, so progress will be made. There is likely to be some form of standard to exchanging route data between ships and coastal authorities within the next 3-5 years that could even have IMO’s stamp of approval. But what about the more commercial information exchanges?
Any moves by organisations to standardise data formats and exchanges should be supported by the industry, especially the software developers who would have to implement any changes. It would benefit the industry as a whole and support the development of smart shipping.