November 30, 2017


Moving maritime from replication to real-time

At a recent seminar in Hong Kong as part of the local Maritime Week, a speaker posed a simple challenge to delegates. Of those present (more than 100), how many worked for a company with a Chief Information Officer?

Two hands went up, very slowly. I later met a man who said he did too, but was too embarrassed to say so at the time. But this still only makes three. In Hong Kong, one of the great centres of shipmanagement. In 2017.

It kind of puts the flurry of words and graphics about smart shipping, high bandwidth communications, autonomous vessels and digitalisation into context. And not in a good way.

It also reflects the reality that other observers have made in different ways. In many cases there is awareness of the opportunity of digitalisation and smarter shipping, there is even data. What is lacking is the tools or the will to grasp the nettle and embark on a digital strategy that addresses the needs we are so used to hearing we need.

Perhaps this means these needs are not there. More likely, it means that owners, encouraged by analyst observations of improving markets are blinking back into the light with too many jobs on the to-do list to consider what happens in 25 years’ time.

‘Not in my lifetime’ is a dangerous attitude to hold on the future but it is the prevailing trend, not the smart shipping paradigm, that currently rules the markets, on the ground and at management level. The seminar audience were most certainly the latter, not a fleet manager or superintendent in sight.

Depressing news if you are supplier of software and services to the shipping industry. Earlier this year Malcolm McMaster President of connectivity provider Globecomm told an audience of similar level shipmanagement staff they shouldn’t imagine the big data revolution was imminent.

The trouble with big data he observed starts when you try move beyond definition and into its practical implications. Ask people what big data actually means to them and the answers are not always positive. These can range from: ‘I have too much work to do already and this creates more’ and ‘it overwhelms decision-makers who are already swamped with information’ to the belief that the ‘Paralysis of Analysis’ means it is ‘hard for many companies to make sense of and act on’.

There are exciting projects which are pushing the industry forward which will all need big data but right now, there are only a handful of companies actually using it day to day. In the case of vessel performance analysis, it is worth remembering that there is often a team of people crunching the data in the background. We shouldn’t imagine that machines can do everything.

One of the most innovative data projects in the industry was one Globecomm was involved with, where it worked with a leading container line and system integrator to connect shipping containers and give the carrier real time updates of the condition of their contents.

The impact in terms of cost savings and efficiencies was huge and easily quantifiable, said McMaster, but was it big data? In fact it was quite small data, however valuable.

To unlock the potential of the data and information available on ship, to process, analyse and act on, needs more than just connectivity, great as it is. Inmarsat which provides the bandwidth that Globecomm and others re-sell is attempting to do just this with its CAP programme which will create an ecosystem of applications that can be used over its satellite network and made available to end users.

Others are emerging in the hardware space and for data too, but we are yet to see the broad take-up of ecosystems that combine common hardware with applications that run on a unified platform.

Perhaps this is just another example of the industry’s fragmentation and the strong competition that exists between vendors. Part of the problem may also be that while obtaining value from big data has the potential to improve efficiency, owners and managers must also accept that it requires additional resources.

IoT is not a case of attaching sensors to machines and going home; to get the data and analytics you need comes with a cost, and how the data is used is critical.

The other question raised by McMaster was whether shipowners and managers are really getting the fresh ideas they require, and this applies to service partners as well as software developers. In this sense, the industry needs disruptors who can think out of box and perhaps change how an established business can think and operate.

Until that happens, the question will continue to be whether big data has a business case and in the eyes of the people who should be benefiting, the jury is still out.

Perhaps that is why so few of those delegates in Hong Kong have put a CIO on the staff. Maybe they have tried and failed to attract the talent they need. Either way, it is clear that shipping is a very long way from an iPhone, or even an Android moment, in which users suddenly find that they can pretty much run their lives from one or two synced devices, over a common platform.

The ability to run a business in real time using little more than mobile devices and some cloud-based computing power is not a reality that shipping, still used to once a day replication, can identify with. But if it wants to match the slick graphics and lofty aspirations with some genuine progress towards a real-time shipping industry, it had better start dancing, rather than wait for the music to begin.

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