Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. We discussed a wide range of topics from the state of the US Flag to the growth of the offshore sector but a common thread in the discussion was the evolving role of the industry and government organizations in the digital age.
For the past few years the Coast Guard has embraced new social media and publishing technology from within the organization starting with improving the availability of information, through the development of internet resources like Homeport, to interacting through the use of social media sites, like gCaptain, Facebook and iCommandant. While this is certainly the most visible aspect of the CG’s digital initiative the manner in which the guard interacts with information, both today and in the future, is more complicated and touches operations as diverse as the organization itself.
The following is part one of my interview Admiral Thad Allen:
gCaptain: Your office has been a proponent of Web 2.0 initiatives. At the most fundamental level Web 2.0 companies either facilitate communication (facebook, twitter) or provides timely access to relevant information (google, digg, yahoo news). On the information side it seems that homeport was the first step and blogs like iCommandant the second, where are we heading?
Admiral Allen: The ultimate goal as I see it is mission execution which is the focus of everything we do here. Social media, being able to align people and create better transparency, allows us to focus the organization to be more effective. The more we can make information transparent, not only to our own people but the American public, the better everyone will understand what the organization is trying to do and assist in moving all of us in the same direction.
The real issue we have right now is an inter-generational issue inside the Coast Guard where not everyone is a digital native like our young kids coming. There is a certain level of socialization that needs to occur and the same applies to dealing with the American public.
I don’t think there is any limit to the potential application for information in creating greater transparency and access to information. For example, today you can view a map of all airlines flying around the country. There is no reason the Coast Guard could not make AIS information available in a similar manner, it’s just a matter of having the right data collection centers and distribution points. It’s not a technology issue, there just hasn’t been enough demand for it. In the future this information could be made available by the Coast Guard leading us to better uses for Web 2.0 and beyond.
gCaptain: The intergenerational issue is interesting. In a recent article for The Maritime Executive Podcast, Editor Joe Keefe tells us of a recent trip with his daughter when, immediately upon boarding a plane, her Nintendo DS connected with the other kids who were able to share files, chat and discuss the trip. Do you foresee a time when a vessel pulls into port and has a similar ability to communicate with VTS, pilots and other vessels?
Admiral Allen: I do and have already had people ask me why, if in cell phone or wireless range, they can not use services like Twitter or email to share information and pictures to increase situational awareness for our operational commanders. There is a difference between getting VHF updates from an on-scene coxswain in a SAR case and receiving pictures from an iPhone along with real time updates via Twitter. There are some issues with security and the types of equipment used but this is all within the realm of the possible.
gCaptain: Who do you see building this type of system?
There are a couple of issues surrounding this question. From within the .mil domain there will always be security issues that require the use of a firewall. Most of the stakeholders and people we deal with, however, live outside in the .gov or .com domains and we need to find a way to crossover and securely move back and forth between these secure and public domains. The threshold is between what needs to be secure and what doesn’t, what’s internal operations and what isn’t. The greater extent to which we can make information completely visible for use by the developers and the public, the greater off we’ll be in the future.
The Homeport website has served us very well but it needs to continue evolving as we move data off the firewall and make it accessible to everybody.
gCaptain: I remember just getting into shipping when daily information between vessels and ship owners was limited to one phone call via Inmarsat-B. The nature of information exchange is rapidly changing with shoreside having access to real time information and access to the vessel. This is new to the maritime industry but the Coast Guard has much experience with this level of connectivity. I would like to ask how real time information and communication has changed the dynamic between Coast Guard Vessels and headquarters?
Admiral Allen: The Coast Guard has always had a command and control system where any unit is available on a frequency and continuously available 7-24, so we have never had the issue of periodic updates. For us the question is moving from analog voice communication to VOIP and data systems that exchange both business information and a common operating picture. This is all being done right now. The real challenge, in my mind, is taking a wider range of systems/business data and the speed/bandwidth in which to move it. As far as command and control we are already there in the Coast Guard.
gCaptain: In the commercial sector this is new technology. Shoreside managers want to use information to support the vessel and this is well received but there is a fine line between providing support and micro-manging individual vessels. Do you have any advice for the maritime community on this topic?
Admiral Allen: I have a lot of conversations about this, especially on the security side, and what I try to do is compare and contrast the aviation community with the sea-going community. The aviation industry is a product of the 20th century. Because there was such a premium placed on safety, with many passenger and cargo flight incidents early on, our air traffic control system is now one of the safest and most transparent operations that you will see anywhere. Pilots are use to being given commands to go from point A to point B and cleared for a specific altitude then cleared for final and cleared to land. That type of control in the maritime environment is something no one has ever seen and will probably take some getting use to.
For a thousand years we have operated on the water where anonymity was a proprietary advantage, you didn’t want anyone to know where you were going based on what goods you were carrying or what the markets were doing. The fact is that modern economics is driving us in a direction, not solely because of safety and security, but as a profit motive for visibility of the supply chain. Business managers want to know, anywhere in the world, the location of a container and this information is not possible without knowing the location of the vessel carrying it.
So I think we are being pressed this way for economics but on the safety and security side the automation of our vessels and its sensors makes it possible to be anywhere on the ship and understand the entire operation. The days of wipers, oilers and engineering officers making rounds is rapidly disappearing. For example, I’ve made the comment that our new national security cutter, the Bertholf, is really a computer with a ship attached.
I am not sure it’s a matter of everyone having to change, I think it’s a new environment and operators have to realize this or be overtaken.