CONNECTING PORTS #5: Maritime industry stays on course for digital standards

For the fifth CONNECTING PORTS talk show on 5 October 2023, HPC Hamburg Port Consulting (HPC) had brought seaworthy and IT-affine guests on board to set sail in the direction of maritime digitalisation. An experienced captain, an expert for digital transformation in container shipping and a port coordinator for large, feeder and inland waterway vessels went on a great journey together. Moderator Christina Prieser, Associate Partner at HPC, kept course towards the future and navigated through an exciting discussion on the state of the standards.

"There has long been a lag in the digitalisation of the maritime economy," Captain Subramaniam Karuppiah slowed the pace at the beginning of the talk show with an intercontinental audience that lasted a good hour. The general manager of the Port Klang Authority in Malaysia recalled problems with data transmission during the pandemic. As outgoing President of the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH), who will be succeeded by Hamburg Port CEO Jens Meier at the beginning of November, he demands: "We have to transmit information quickly so that companies can be successful."

Three forward-looking, digital "tools" are available for navigation - the Maritime Single Window (MSW), Port Community Systems (PCS) and Port Call Optimisation (PCO). How can they be used to stay on course? The moderator first wants to know from Captain Subramaniam Karuppiah what distinguishes MSW and PCS. "While the PCS controls cargo traffic, port operations and logistical processes, the MSW communicates with a multitude of authorities," he differentiates. For the exchange of goods, both systems would have to be connected - anything but trivial.

Because the maritime industry has to cover many nautical miles on the way to digitalisation, several large container shipping companies have joined forces to form the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) in 2019. Their goal: to set standards and thus create digital interoperability. The moderator asks Slavia Jumelet, Product Manager for Operational Vessel Standards at the DCSA in Amsterdam, what role MSW and PCS play in the DCSA. Data has to flow between different container shipping companies, says Slavia Jumelet, but also to the terminals as well as ports, supporting different Terminal Operating Systems (TOS) plus the respective PCS there. "We make sure that standards we create actually work and are useful for all parties in the supply chain," she stresses.

"2,000 ports, 6,000 terminals, 18,000 cargo ships worldwide need an appointment with each other every day - around the clock, 365 days a year," Gerald Hirt outlines the demanding task. If you ask three people for the definition of the estimated time of arrival (ETA) at the port of destination, you will get different answers - and that makes it "impossible to work effectively". That is why the Managing Director at the Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center HVCC, which is a member of the International Taskforce Port Call Optimisation (ITPCO), sees the exchange of data between ships and handling processes via Port Call Optimization as a revolution - away from disconnected systems such as telephone and e-mails with PDF attachments, towards standards. According to him, three different data groups are crucial for maritime digitalisation: in addition to digital charts with nautical data, he mentions application programming interfaces (APIs) to exchange operational data and the MSW for administrative data exchange with authorities. 

However, it is a long way from the port of Hamburg to global standards, especially as the degree of digitalisation of individual ports, terminals, carriers and other players varies greatly, as Slavia Jumelet points out. For standardisation, she and her colleagues take a very close look at the processes: What data needs to be provided at what stage of the process, and who needs to respond to it? "The point of standards is that all platforms communicate with each other," she explains. Captain Subramaniam Karuppiah agrees "to urgently unify the standards" all over the world. Christina Prieser doesn't want to let that stand: Why then did the industry wait so long and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) only issues a regulation on an MSW from January 2024? The captain admits it took "about five years to agree on implementation". He believes this is because "many ports around the world have their own challenges". Now countries and ports should "conduct audits on their own to make sure they are meeting the required standards", he suggests. Most applications for the MSW are already established, he says, and he sees everything on a good track.

HVCC found a blueprint in the aviation industry in 2009, as Gerald Hirt explains: "Their solution was to take a collaborative approach to data availability and provide clear, accurate and transparent information." With sensitive data, of course, this only works with mutual trust, data exchange agreements, and cyber security. But the responsibilities of so-called data ownership proved to be the "biggest problem". Gerald Hirt's example: when HVCC started sharing data with the Port of Rotterdam in 2018, the technical setup took only half a day. "But the data exchange agreements took us six months," he says.

Slavia Jumelet notices a willingness for trustful cooperation among the DCSA founding members and beyond: Together with other organisations such as the international forwarding association FIATA or the Society for Worldwide Financial Communication SWIFT, the DCSA is pursuing the goal of standardising the digitisation of international trade in the FIT Alliance. First success: meanwhile, booking process data can be automatically transferred to the electronic Bill of Lading. This enables the terminals to process the cargo more efficiently and faster, and move forward to paperless tradesays Slavia Jumelet.

While all speakers agreed that the maritime industry still has a long way to go in rough seas when it comes to digital standards, Captain Subramaniam Karuppiah nevertheless considers the tense geopolitical situation "not a big problem".

The complete session Connecting Ports #05 is available as video here.