Future of Shipping | It’s Going to Be About the Data – But Whose?

sea of data binary information
Image (c) Shutterstock/Bruce Rolff

The future of shipping will in part, be about data. Big data. We know this because there are a lot of people telling us so, and some of them are in a position to influence outcomes. When the IMO secretary-general held a Symposium on Ship Safety ahead of the most recent Maritime Safety Committee, the role of the human factor, development of new technology and the importance of data were the big takeaways.

In order to update the SOLAS Convention, the industry is going to have to take advantage of the computing power that was not available in 1974 to design a set of rules that are fit for the 21st century.

The data requirement will be huge and that’s to say nothing of the data already being collected and crunched in the cause of operational efficiency for existing ships.

It’s an accepted part of the HTS story that more and faster bandwidth will finally unlock the potential for data gathering from across the ship. As Roger Adamson noted in his recent post on Maritime Insight, the vessel of the future could be sentient; self-correcting and diagnostic. Many believe that it could be semi-autonomous too, if not completely remote-controlled with streams of data flowing back and forth.

For some owners that will probably be the case – the industry tends to lead the regulators of course – but the regulators are probably the ones with greater long term influence.

But what happens when, for example, the IMO, class societies and their consultants come calling for shipping’s big data in the cause of shared safety aims? Surely it can’t have escaped the notice of canny owners that the data that their ships produce is going to go up in value as more and more people seek to analyse and interpret it.

Owners might already have a clear understanding of the need to secure and licence that data if want to gain the maximum value from it themselves. The premium being paid for Ecoship design newbuildings and the Rosetta Stone of performance improvement from energy saving devices both suggest that this data, applied correctly, could make a competitive difference to a shipowner in good times or bad.

And there is a clear precedent here from consumer markets, where we are only just beginning to understand the value of our data, both that which we have already given away and that which internet companies yet want us to provide.

It’s a topic discussed in an interview with technology analyst Horace Dediu who makes the point that internet businesses, which are mostly about data, have two models, “one where everybody consumes but pays in metadata and another where everybody consumes aggregated analytics but pays in cash”.

The arbitrage that takes place as the internet business exploits that inefficiency tends not to be very sustainable as information leaks across markets.

Dediu adds that “what would blow the internet up is if consumers could become wiser about what they are giving up and advertisers would become wiser about aggregating consumer data.”

Transpose that to shipowner and IT consultant and the same applies: the former might start off giving up data because they are unaware of its value but as it starts to become apparent what innovations and opportunities flow from design and operational data, then the price to the ‘buyer’ will rise – fall and rise again. Shipping is cyclical after all.

Dediu imagines a system where individual consumers would allow bids on their consumption with bidders ‘competing for data’.

The issue for shipping is that this data has not been priced yet so arbitrage opportunities exist. The data originators might see that as their opportunity not only to make some money but to monetise the data for themselves. If the pendulum swung too far the other way and owners and yards decided that what they have is too valuable to share, Mr Sekimizu’s plans for a new data-driven Solas Convention might be impacted.

“This of course depends on users taking control and ownership of their own data,” Dediu adds. “What might help is the realisation of what mass state surveillance can do and the realisation that internet giants have more information about us than the government could ever hope to possess.”

Shipping technology providers are no Google, no Facebook or Microsoft, but those that want to trade the emerging market for shipping data will no doubt be drawing up their strategies.

Neville Smith can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaritimeInsight.  Read this article, and others on his blog.