Digitisation needs standardisation, webinar hears

Big numbers had registered for a joint IMO-Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) webinar on digitisation on Thursday (8 October): 900 from 80 countries. And it was a big topic with a particular relevance coming so soon after two major maritime cyber-attacks in a few days of each other, which affected CMA CGM and IMO. One speaker, Dr Heike Deggim, director of IMO’s Safety Division, described that incident as “a cyber attack of unprecedented severity that paralysed almost all of our systems.”

Focusing mostly on port-related matters, the presentations included the official launch of the Port Authorities CIO Cybersecurity Network (PACC-Net; not to be confused, as my Google search was, with the Port Adelaide Cricket Club, www.pacc.net.au), which was first mooted at an MPA event last October. It has an initial membership of nine ports in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia and its aim is to “facilitate the early sharing of information to counter potential or active maritime cyber security threats”.

But what I took away from the webinar was not specifically port-centric. For me, its message was about the need for common date standards and an understanding of the limitations of relying on data. Dr Deggim, for example, reminded us that IMO has developed the IMO Compendium on Facilitation and Electronic Business, which is a tool to support software developers to standardise the data elements needed during a port call.

In a short video about IMO’s support for digitalisation (see below) we learned that the compendium “will make it possible for all to communicate because, no matter which standard their system is based on, the data can be exchanged.” Of course, that assumes that ports are using digital systems in the first place, yet many still rely on personal interaction and paper-based transactions, Dr Deggim said.

Even ports that have gone digital may struggle to meet future demands for consistent data standards, said Dr Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of the International Association of Ports & Harbors. Only 49 of IMO’s 170 member states have ports with established port community systems he said, “which is not a lot,” bearing in mind that their introduction began in the 1980s.

In less advanced ports, “it may be more difficult to adapt systems that have been developed over several decades” in ports where “everybody invested in their own systems and standards,” he added.

But how much can we rely on data? Capt Tomoyuki Koyama, senior managing executive officer at NYK Line, brought a sense of caution to the discussion, based on NYK’s experience. There can be no doubt that, with 784 ships totalling 67,468,000dwt, based on end-March figures – not to mention its air cargo, trucking and warehousing operations – the operator has a lot of experience to share.

It has used its Shipping Information Management Systems (SIMS) since 2008 to collect vast quantities of data about its ships’ navigation, operations and processes from more than 2,000 data collection points on each ship. All this is processed and cleaned before being displayed on its LIVE (Latest Information for Vessel Efficiency) screens, ensuring that all users have access to the same data.

Yet “just having big data doesn't solve the problem,” he said. “We always have an expert with domain knowledge in the loop to analyse the data,” he said. Even in its remote diagnostic centres, where it uses AI to spot anomalies in the data, “we have a group of chief engineers to help the AI filter the data” and ensure that only high priority alerts are sent to the ship’s manager.

He gave an impressive example of how its data analysis has saved money and cut emissions. One ship was not being operated at its design deadweight and the intelligence gained from the data suggested that it would benefit from a reshaped bulbous bow. The work was done and “we achieved 23% CO2 reduction, which is a very large amount,” he said.

He is also an advocate of just-in-time arrival and said that, by using real time data from its ships and working with their captains to optimise speed to avoid arriving early, NYK has saved US$600M in just three years. It is a concept that some believe has its flaws and Capt Koyama acknowledged that it was not a simple option for every operator; “the drawback of this system is you need a private birth at both ends,” he said.

His views reminded me of a conversation I had recently with the CEO of a company whose business is built around ship operational data who told me that data can be smart but it cannot be wise. In other words, to get full value from data requires human intervention.

David Foo, senior director of operations technology at the MPA, would agree. Despite MPA being at the heart of the PACC-Net programme and a lot of other data-reliant innovations, he told webinar attendees that, for safety’s sake, “we do not over-rely on technology” as far as ship operations are concerned. “The seafarers [and] the bridge team will still need to … use all different sources of information to make the best decision.”

In an echo of Mr Verhoeven’s remarks, he also took a cautious view of global digitalisation, saying that investment in connectivity and communication systems will be vital “to reach out to the most remote parts of the oceans.” However, “you need to be able to do this in an economic way” for it to make business sense, he said.

If I had to sum-up my learning points from the webinar, I would use a single phrase on a slide presented by Eric Chean, CEO of Singapore-based Ship Supplies Direct: “Digitalisation is not a business strategy”. Rather, digitalisation must serve the strategy.

● IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim opened the webinar, saying that the organisation “is working to ensure shipping can embrace the digital revolution” and reminded attendees that electronic data exchange has been mandatory under the Facilitation Convention since April 2019. Only the previous week, IMO's Facilitation Committee had approved a revised version of the IMO Compendium on Facilitation and Electronic Business.

He also launched an IMO video animation, mentioned above, “to show how electronic data exchange is vital to ensure supply chains continue to function safely and effectively, with contactless clearance of ships in and out of ports.”

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