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“Accelerating Digitalization: Critical Actions to Strengthen the Resilience of the Maritime Supply Chain,” a report that the World Bank and International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) issued in January, describes how collaborative use of digital technology can help streamline all aspects of maritime transport, from cross-border processes and documentation to communications between ship and shore.

The joint report, with its special focus on ports, argues that a better digital collaboration between private and public entities across the maritime supply chain will result in significant efficiency gains, safer and more resilient supply chains and lower emissions.

“The report’s short and medium-term measures to accelerate digitalization have the proven potential to improve supply chain resilience and efficiency whilst addressing potential risks related to cybersecurity,” says Dr. Patrick Verhoeven, the IAPH managing director of Policy and Strategy. “However, necessary policy reform is also vital. Digitalization is not just a matter of technology but, more importantly, of change management, data collaboration and political commitment.”

How big a deal is big data? According to, the global big data and business analytics market is valued at $215.7 billion this year and will grow by more than 27% to exceed $274 billion by the end of next year.

However, recent IAPH survey revealed that only a third of more than 100 responding ports complied with a mandatory International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirement that all member countries exchange key data electronically. The main barriers to digitalization cited by the ports did not involve the technology but the legal framework within their countries or regions and the inability to persuade multiple private-public stakeholders to collaborate.

Fortunately, as you will learn if you read on, there are governments, port authorities and economic development entities that are embracing big data.

Bottlenecks along the supply chain

Among the key chokepoints in the global maritime system are some of the world’s most critical transport gateways. Consider the significance of just two of them: The Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz. As the U.S. Department of Energy’s website makes quite clear about the importance of the latter, “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint.”

More than 90% of the world’s total trade volume is moved by the maritime shipping industry. Every year, it transports more than $4 trillion of goods. An immense pressure is placed on shipping companies to remain on schedule, protect the cargo ship and crew, and ensure profitability. And one can’t say that it’s easy.

It is hard to visualize the world’s main shipping routes or to glimpse the industry’s complexity. As they transport goods from one continent to another, approximately 90,000 vessels cross paths.

The maritime industry involves an intricate system of transportation. To complicate things, ports and vessels are also subject to the forces of nature, which are becoming harder and harder to predict. Thus, shipping companies must be able to adapt to changing situations and act fast.

With real-time big data analytics, however, the maritime industry can better navigate these unexpected challenges.

Big data is a field that extracts and analyzes data from data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing application software. Real-time capabilities mean that those insights are delivered immediately after collection.

How exactly does real-time big data help?

Maritime companies generate data from different sources and in several formats. Traditionally, these insights are fixed, siloed and inconsistent. Actioning this information is time-consuming and a major pain point for shipping companies. 

With big data tools, this inflow of data is collated and organized in a cloud-based system. It then analyzes and spits out the relevant data in real-time, which promotes better decision making. Nothing is left to intuition or chance—unlocking opportunities to drive greater efficiencies.

According to the recent World Bank report “Reforming and Rebuilding Lebanon’s Port Sector: Policies and Solutions for Digitalizing the Port of Beirut,” digitalization must be key in the reconstruction and modernization of the facility that was rocked by chemical explosions in August 2020.  

“Rapidly evolving technology is creating the digital ports of the future and Lebanon should not be left out,” maintains Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq regional director. “Through an all stakeholder approach, Lebanon should immediately enact special port institutional framework to reform the port sector and to launch transformation process toward a structured and systematic technological upgrade of the Port of Beirut to support Lebanon’s economic recovery.”

Efficient maritime operations and logistics

Overall operations and logistics become much more efficient with real-time data. Companies can obtain information through GPS and RFID tags to help locate containers and ships immediately. Data technology also helps synchronize communication to manage ship arrivals, berthings, and departures safely and efficiently. And in case of an emergency, non-availability of labor or terminal allocations, real-time data helps ships plan their routes and speeds accordingly.

Due to climate change, this ability to pivot has never been so relevant. Although the global maritime industry is a well-oiled machine, the ocean’s weather—currents, waves and wind—are more unpredictable than ever. Real-time data streamlines decision making and supports ad hoc navigation to ensure companies maximize returns.

After a yearlong trial period, the Greater Houston Port Bureau officially partnered in June with PortXchange Products, a Netherlands-based digital solutions provider for predictable and sustainable shipping. The five-year deal is allowing for the adoption and further development of PortXchange’s collaborative vessel and terminal planning platform.

“Digitization and data are key for the port of Houston region to increase predictability, improve efficiency and remain globally competitive,” says Capt. Bill Diehl, U.S. Coast Guard (retired), president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. The non-profit trade organization operates the Maritime Exchange of Texas, which maintains critical vessel movement data for the Lone Star State’s deep draft ports.

The agreement came as a result of Diehl’s agency embracing “the idea that digitalization and scheduling transparency is the future of any port,” according to Sjoerd de Jager, PortXchange’s managing director, who adds, “we look forward to extending our collaboration in the Houston port community.”

Big data is helping to identify open berths at the Port of Gothenburg. In September, the largest port in Scandinavia launched Allberth, a smart device developed by Awake.AI of Finland. 

“With Allberth, we now have a berth planning tool that can make calls smarter, safer and considerably more efficient for all concerned,” says Fredrik Rauer, traffic coordinator and project leader for Berth Planner at the Gothenburg Port Authority. “And reduced emissions from the vessels are an obvious benefit in climate terms.”

External users, who are gradually being added to the system, can make their own planning decisions based on the same data. “With Allberth,” Rauer says, “we can give mooring personnel, the ship’s agent and the terminal the opportunity to act immediately on the information that we visualize in the application.” 

Fuel-efficient routing

By having access to real-time sea state observations—currents, waves and swell—vessel operators can re-route according to current ocean and weather conditions while optimizing fuel efficiency. Inefficient weather routing oftentimes leads to the increased time spent at sea, which not only disrupts and delays the supply chain but can also increase fuel burn and CO2 emissions. 

In addition to increasing voyage earnings, fuel-efficient routing also reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, supporting the latest GHG reduction strategy that the IMO developed in 2018. The initial strategy envisages that the total annual GHG emissions from international shipping should be reduced by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. What does 50% look like? The IMO calculated that vessels released 1.12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide the year before, in 2007. Emissions need to be reduced by 560 million metric tons. That’s equivalent to the emissions from 102 million cars.

One key conclusion to make about the real-world is that real-time data helps to reduce fuel costs and also helps to reduce GHG emissions.

The Port Authority of New South Wales in Australia is maneuvering very large ships safer and more efficiently thanks to OMC International’s Dynamic Under Keel Clearance (DUKC) system. The Aussie company’s technology is currently being used at the ports of Botany, Newcastle and Kembla.

The DUKC system provides tanker and deep drafter container captains “with near real-time data, taking account of a number of variables, including the height of tide, the speed of the ship, the ship’s maneuverability, tidal streams and the dynamic motions of the vessel–all essential information used by our highly trained team of marine pilots when maneuvering these vessels within port waters,” says Myron Fernandes, the port authority’s harbor master for Sydney and Botany.

Is real-time big data safe from cyber-threats? 

The convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) onboard ships—and their connection to the internet—creates an increased attack surface that requires greater cyber risk management.

On the IT side, the chances of cyberattacks can be mitigated through proper implementation of encryption techniques such as blockchain technology. From an operational standpoint, IMO maintains that effective cyber risk management should start at the senior management level—embedding a culture of cyber risk awareness into all levels and departments of an organization. 

One can read more about this in “Guidelines on Cybersecurity Onboard Ships” from BIMCO, a non-governmental organization that aims to be at the forefront of global developments in shipping. With offices in Copenhagen, Singapore, Shanghai, Athens and London, BIMCO provides expert knowledge and practical advice to members that range from small local port agents and law firms to the largest shipowners in the world.

Knowledge is power

It is possible that the maritime industry can become bigger and better—and more lucrative—while emitting less GHG emissions. By implementing real-time insights in daily operations, shipping companies are well-positioned to navigate anything that comes their way. And how this year has gone, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an edge on the unexpected.  

As the technology evolves, an emerging group of global communications companies are competing with one another to execute on a radical mission statement: to bring connectivity to everyone, everywhere. As these technologists make progress, they enable maritime organizations to connect more efficiently with customers, facilities and systems.

One of those companies, OneWeb, has been busy building a communications network with a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that provide connectivity to people around the world. OneWeb’s method for enabling Internet access for all is starting to become a reality. As a result of OneWeb’s new capacities in space, the company is getting ready to provide low-cost solutions for broadband, government and cellular backhaul. Its high speed, low latency, network will offer new affordable mobility solutions to industries that rely on global connectivity, including ports and the maritime companies that depend upon ports.

OneWeb, which is headquartered in London and has a manufacturing facility in Merritt Island, Florida, successfully commenced launches for its satellite constellation network back in February 2019. As of May of this year, 218 of a planned 648 satellites in the initial constellation had blasted off. 

Closer to Earth, the Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board in July approved more than $15 million in grants for planning, economic development and rural broadband infrastructure construction projects, including awards of $1.7 million to the Port of Whitman County and nearly $1.6 million to the Port of Clarkston in Asotin County for high-speed internet connections. The Olympia-based board’s grants and more than $2.5 million in loans will be matched by over $7.6 million in private investment, and the resulting partner projects will create an estimated 200 jobs. 

Big data is a must-have

In today’s world, inland port facilities must view a strong digital infrastructure as “essential” as opposed to “just a value-add,” according to Marc Salotti, managing director at Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore, Maryland. The modern, 3,300-acre industrial site used to be known as Sparrows Point, which had been one of the world’s largest iron and steel making facilities for 125 years before closing in 2012.

“Think about the target user,” Salotti recently wrote on the Supply Chain Brain forum. “With increasing pressure on global supply chains, the rise of e-commerce, and growth of direct-to-consumer methods, companies aren’t just looking for a storage facility. They want an adaptable environment that maximizes supply-chain optionality and growth, a strong technical infrastructure, and a strategic partner to work through challenges and share innovative solutions.”

Saudi Global Ports (SGP) is incorporating smart port design to two container terminals at King Abdulaziz Port Dammam. The program includes establishing an area called “The Sandbox” to test new technologies in automation and connectivity and develop new processes that will be subsequently deployed across SGP.

“We are taking progressive steps toward transforming Dammam into a leading international container port equipped with digital and smart capabilities, and continue to contribute toward Mawani (Saudi Ports Authority) and the Kingdom’s plans for a transformational transport and logistics sector,” says SGP’s CEO Edward Tah.

The future is also now for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which is working with partners to design a collaborative system to manage marine vessel traffic and optimize the supply chain flow by a March 31, 2022, deadline imposed by the Canadian government, which also provided funding for an electronic conveyor system to transport bulk materials at the Port of Saguenay.

Embracing big data cannot come soon enough, according to Salotti: “If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t be complacent. We must evaluate. We must evolve. We must commit to real, systemic change in economic development and infrastructure. Then, we won’t just build a more resilient trade pipeline; we’ll create new jobs and sustain the heart of American industry.”