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Data analysis in shipping: There is no shortcut

If you want to derive valuable and accurate insights from data, you must understand data and its processes

Data-driven decision-making is a priority for most businesses, though the digitalisation process feels out of reach for many; it is not  but it requires engagement, a bit of expertise and some enthusiasm

DATA is valuable for commercial decision-making. Plain and simple. It can be used to improve operational efficiency, assess risk and improve safety records, and offer transparency on carbon emissions.

This is not insignificant, given a highly competitive global market, the intensifying push for decarbonisation and general demands from the public for businesses to literally — and figuratively — clean up their acts.

Yet shipping has a multi-faceted data challenge. Standardisation is not universal, there is a wide knowledge gap, and the expertise to integrate and utilise data is not always readily available.

Any business that wants to collect and analyse data needs to be working with some form of standardised information, otherwise it is impossible to analyse at scale.

Companies can build and use their own internal templates. However, that throws up a roadblock for the broader industry analysis that is needed to tackle issues such as decarbonisation.

The Digital Container Shipping Association is setting standards for container lines to adopt.

“If you want to have interoperable supply chains and frictionless exchange of data, then you need to have widely adopted standards applied across the industry,” said DCSA chief executive Thomas Bagge.

“This is the only way to ensure an efficient and sustainable shipping industry that is fit for the future.”

Standardisation is the foundation not only of digitalisation, but of advanced data analysis. The only way data can be assessed is if it is collected in a uniform way and stored properly.

The container industry is fortunate to have the guidance of the DCSA, but the bulk carrier and tankers sectors do not yet have a dedicated standardisation body.

This does not mean these shipowners should just throw in the towel; it is just an added task when trying to utilise and leverage data, and the fragmented approach will hinder the wider digitalisation process.

For those who think this all seems like a lot of work, there are third-party tech solutions that make the job easier.

“Data quality is crucial here. I guess any company can crunch, validate and clean data. You just have to make sure you have access to the right data sets and understand how to see the relationships between these data sets,” said Mathijs Slangen, vice-president, sales, at supply chain management company Flexport.

“In the end, it is not extremely difficult, though it does require a serious amount of resources and knowledge about the applicability of the data.

“For us, it is our bread and butter. It is what we do, and we have a massive number of engineers who work on it,” said Mr Slangen.

“For a standalone company, it is probably not money well spent to set up a similar taskforce. To build a similar set-up would be a very costly exercise — one that only massive multinationals can do.”

There are benefits to looking externally for data solutions.

Such outfits can combine and compare a wide variety of data sources, which enables access to new information. Further, it means data can be verified independently, which improves data quality.

Tarun Mehrotra, chief strategy officer at RightShip, an environmental, social and governance-focused digital maritime platform, uses the company’s vetting solution as an example.

“For charterers, we are an independent provider of services, because you really want an independent view on the risk profile of a vessel.

“Any elements of ESG businesses want an arms-length view, and then they can take the action that they want from their own risk profile,” explained Mr Mehrotra.

The diverse range of sources and sheer volume of data that third-party solutions collect means these providers have a holistic view of the market, enabling them to notice trends and help customers benchmark themselves against the industry.

An additional benefit is the retention of data and maritime industry expertise. These experts are available to provide support to clients, ultimately to make decision-making with data more accessible. 

The industry is progressing at different rates. For those further along on their data journeys, they often have the option to integrate data from platforms into their own workflows. Thus, the external data is an additional layer of intelligence to be used in analysis.

All of this might seem too advanced for some businesses, where the first question is simply: ‘What do I do with all this data?’

Work backwards. It is easy to be overwhelmed by lots of data feeds and points, especially if it is unstructured — so the best thing is to establish the purpose for which the business needs data.

For example, start with identifying pain points that need to be addressed. From there, you can identify the data fields, or information, that you need.

“Data-enabled decision-making holds the key to optimising every vessel and voyage, improving revenue and increasing asset value,” said Sarah Barrett, head of product insights at Wärtsilä Voyage, a maritime technology company.

“The true power of today’s software algorithms is that they make recommendations that can then be analysed and interpreted by the user to course-correct, blending software insights and human reasoning to chart the best course.”

It is an important point to make. Data — even that not fed through an algorithm — does not make decisions; it informs them.

Whether your business decides to lean on a third-party solution or leverage in-house information, or somewhere in between, all stakeholders need to be engaged.

Any team trying to use data that is removed from the process risks misinterpreting the information, which could lead to poor decision-making.

The value of data is not in the fact that it simply exists, but in being able to gain insights to make commercial decisions.

To do that, you have to understand how data is collected and cleaned, as well as how it is processed into different information. There is no workaround. 

This article is part of Lloyd’s List’s special report on ‘Digitalisation & Data’ to be published in full online this week. Subscribers can access a downloadable PDF by clicking here

Subscribers can also register here for Lloyd’s List’s upcoming webinar ‘Digitalisation as a Service: gimmick or game-changer’ being held on February 15 (14:00 GMT)

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