Many ports are expressing an interest in the concept of Smart Ports now that technology offers significant opportunities to improve efficiency while reducing costs and environmental impact.  Key technologies that are often quoted as useful on the journey towards becoming a Smart Port include nascent technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G.  

But what are these technologies exactly and how can they deliver these perceived benefits to ports? In the next few short articles, we will look at five of the current technology “buzzwords” in the industry, explain what they mean, and look at how they can be used in a port environment. In this article, we start by unpacking Big Data & Blockchain.

What is Big Data?

Traditional data refers to the types of structured information held in systems of record (Terminal Operating Systems, financial systems, etc).  Ports often use snapshots of this traditional business data within Business Intelligence Systems or spreadsheets to make strategic decisions and guide the direction of port investments or operational practices.

Big Data is the ability to capture existing structured data as well as new types of structured, unstructured and semi-structured data. Examples of Big Data include emails, video, social media streams, system and machine logs.  Over time data has been difficult to capture, store and analyse because of the costs associated with storage and computing power.  

With the emergence of new technologies designed to process high volumes of data arriving at high speed from disparate systems, and the rapidly declining costs of infrastructure and computing power, ports can now capture the right insights at the right time to drive the right action(s).

With technology projects, it is essential to understand the problem before implementing a solution.  Big data is no different and understanding the question you are trying to answer will influence the technology that you use in your Big Data implementation.  

From big data to next steps

To utilise big data, it is important to engage the right skill sets.  Combining the talents of Data Engineers, skilled in building the underlying technology infrastructure, with Data Scientists who can enhance the quality and usability of data and apply domain knowledge to extract valuable information, can bring a significant competitive advantage to the business.

Businesses unsure of the value of Big Data may be hesitant to engage costly resources until the benefits are clear.  Engaging consultants to deliver trial projects and prove the value of a Big Data strategy can be a low-cost, low-risk way of evaluating the concept.

By blending Big Data with traditional Business Intelligence, port leaders can use other emerging technologies, such as Data Science and Analytics, to enhance the strategic decision-making process.  Ports can also operationalise Big Data to highlight potential business problems before they have an impact.  Timely interventions driven by real time insights can avoid costly failures and/or improve customer service by driving the next best action.

Creating Value for ports

So, how can Big Data create value for ports?  Consider three possible examples: 

  • Streaming data from onboard equipment systems, enhancing it with additional sensors (such as GPS or telematics) combined with operator and task related data from operational systems can deliver deeper insights. And, these are not just restricted to the mechanical and operational efficiency of equipment and operators. Mechanical and operator issues can also be highlighted mechanical or operator issues.
  • Often ports are unaware of the cost of repeated administrative issues because there is no capture or analysis process.  Although admin personnel may deal with the same problems regularly, with no clear records it becomes difficult to quantify the cost.  Using text analytics to analyse e-mail and identify common problems (or common offenders) can reveal the scale of a problem so that it can be properly addressed.
  • Currently, ports rely on the vigilance of security and port personnel to identify potential safety or security threats.  Using video analysis to compare actual location of personnel with expected locations can alert staff to potential security threats in real time.

Now that we have examined Big Data and its potential for ports, let’s focus on demystifying another aspect of technology – Blockchain – and look at what it might mean for the current and future developments in ports.

What is Blockchain?

Blockchain is typically associated with the Bitcoin cryptocurrency technology that is built upon it.  However, at its core, Blockchain is a method of securely encrypting and storing transactional data in a chronological chain of blocks across a distributed network of computers, or “nodes”.

The technology ensures data integrity through a process known as “consensus”.  To achieve consensus, all nodes perform a calculation on a block of data.  All nodes then agree on the result of that calculation, at which point each node records the new block in its own copy of the ledger.  To enhance data integrity, the result of the calculation from the previous block is also used in the calculation for the new block.  Thus, if data in one block was changed (altering the result of that block), all subsequent blocks would need to be modified.

While Blockchain can be used to prove errors, it does not make systems error proof.  In traditional databases that hold only “snapshots” of data, a user with appropriate permissions can change a record.  The original state of the data may be lost, or its links removed to other elements.  In a blockchain database, it is not possible to modify a record.  All updates are entered into the database separately.  It is therefore possible to create a complete audit of all versions of a record, showing the timestamp, location and identify of the user applying any updates.

The technology is highly secure.  In order to compromise a blockchain based system, an intruder would need to compromise 51% of all nodes in the distributed network and, assuming they could break the encryption, modify the records extensively in every copy of the database.

The inherent level of trust that a Blockchain solution offers can streamline workflow by reducing unnecessary manual validation of data, such as in the process of creating legal documentation relating to the transfer of ownership of goods.  Processes that currently take days or weeks to complete could be reduced to minutes or hours because the trust is built into the system.

What value does Blockchain hold for ports? 

At this time, we do not envisage any situations where a port would implement a blockchain solution individually.  Ports may, however, participate in a wider supply chain solution.  An example of this may be the transfer of weight transactions from a weighbridge, via a Terminal Operating System (TOS) into the distributed ledger, so that all participants can view records associated with the load or discharge of goods to the vessel.  

Well known current examples of Blockchain in the supply chain include tuna fish (reassuring consumers that the dish they are consuming has come from sustainable sources) and coffee (reassuring consumers that their purchase originated from farmers in under-privileged areas).  Within the Maritime industry, the TradeLens platform – a joint venture between Maersk and IBM – provides a secure and trustworthy record of shipment that reduces the level of manual intervention and ensures the secure transfer of data between interested parties.

In Big Data and Blockchain we have two of the most substantial shifts and changes facing many industries, but certainly maritime and ports. How they are developed and implemented over the coming years will define the Smart Ports of the future.

But they are not the only changes on the horizon and in our next article we will explore Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and 5G and what they mean for ports.

If you want to know more, or discuss the implications of these technologies, get in touch with a member of our team today

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