The digital revolution has changed the way the world does business. That change has been more evident and more rapid than ever before over the past year as all industries grapple with the challenges of COVID-19. Container shipping is no exception to the digital revolution, but the pace and benefits of that change have not always been equally felt by all participants.

On the one hand, carriers, ports and terminals are making enormous use of technology to fast-track their operations and boost efficiency. The average modern container vessel contains thousands of sensors and entire ports can be remotely operated. At the same time, the customer experience has not seen benefits accelerate at the same speed. At DCSA, we believe standards can bridge that divide, enabling interoperability that will bring tangible benefits to both shipping service providers and their customers.

The right to roam

For proof of this theory, we need only look at some of the more digitally advanced industries such as banking and telecommunications. Those of us who are old enough to remember travelling between Europe and the United States or Japan in the early 2000s will remember the frustration of not being able to use your regular mobile phone on arrival because of the different technologies used on different continents. Today this seems like ancient history. Global network standards have enabled the creation of triband and quadband phones which means most consumers no longer have to face any barriers to international roaming except the costs!

Similarly in banking, the introduction of the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) by SWIFT has revolutionised the consumer’s experience of managing their money. This internationally agreed system to identify bank accounts across national borders has reduced the risk of errors and enabled automation of transactions. Without IBAN it would be hard to imagine internet or mobile banking. Financial interoperability has also enabled a better consumer experience on the high street. When (if ever) was the last time you checked a shop window for a VISA or Master Card symbol before deciding to make a purchase? These days the consumer does not have to worry about who is processing their payment, pretty much every credit card can be accepted in every store thanks to the interoperability that comes with internationally agreed financial digital standards.

How DCSA can help bridge shipping’s digital divide

Container shipping still has a way to go before it achieves a similar level of consumer experience to these industries. At DCSA we firmly believe such advances are a matter of “when” not “if”, and that the benefits will be obvious to all. One day a shipper will be able to book an end-to-end journey for their cargo on multiple modes of transport in one transaction and get instant confirmation. They’ll also be able to track the progress of their shipment in real-time with proactive notifications of delays or schedule changes. It’ll be as normal as booking a trip with connecting flights, a hotel and an airport transfer from a single mobile app; or tracking the delivery of an online purchase from warehouse to your front door.

So how do we get there? As we’ve seen in the banking and telecoms examples, the answer is developing digital standards that enable this level of interoperability and ensuring they’re widely adopted. And that’s where DCSA comes in.

Top priorities for our members

Since our foundation in 2019 we’ve been working on two parallel tracks. Firstly, we’re facilitating discussions on topics that matter internally to the industry such as cybersecurity or just-in-time port calls. Secondly, we’re also finding standardised ways for service providers to expose relevant data to customers that’s timely, accurate and actionable. Considering both these areas holistically is essential to ensuring the standards we develop work for all parties in the supply chain. 

One of the highest priorities for DCSA’s member carriers is to establish standards that will support the digitalisation of international trade, in other words digital documentation processes. That’s why we’re putting a lot of work into defining standards for the electronic bill of lading, the electronic letter of credit and electronic certificates. It’s a topic which holds vast potential, even though change will not be delivered overnight. It’s a multi-year journey with a very wide range of stakeholders. But we’ve been really pleased with the variety of individuals and groups that have agreed to collaborate in the process, from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to many banks and insurers.

Top priorities for shippers

Meanwhile the ongoing congestion in ports on the west coast of the USA offers a clear illustration of why “timely, accurate and actionable” data is so badly needed. Many shippers have been left with little or no insight into the conditions of their cargo, as post-COVID backlogs continue to cause delays.

DCSA is working on two key standards that will help improve visibility for shippers in the future. The most promising in the long term is the standard for industrial IoT for smart containers. However, implementing this standard will require substantial investment and adoption and is therefore likely to grow over time.

In the short term, DCSA’s Track and Trace (T&T) standard is much more easily applied and is already making a difference. T&T enables customers of the industry to exchange data with multiple carriers using one API instead of today’s collection of bespoke solutions. We recently reached a significant T&T milestone with the majority of our member carriers now adopting the T&T standard and either already providing, or soon to provide, customers with access to the standards-based API. There is still much for DCSA and its collaborators to do, but the prospects are good. We expect more carriers to adopt the T&T standard in the coming months and we’re continuing to develop our cyber security and eDocumentation initiatives. If we are to succeed in bridging that digital divide, it will take all parts of the industry to get involved and stay the course. The kind of innovation and interoperability enjoyed by the telecoms and banking industries can be ours if we’re willing to work together.