Maritime digitalisation and the human element

By Stuart Nicholls, CEO, StratumFive first published in HANSA, April 2018 The onset of digitalisation is a transformative force within shipping – and it’s one that creates varied…

By Stuart Nicholls, CEO, StratumFive first published in HANSA, April 2018

The onset of digitalisation is a transformative force within shipping – and it’s one that creates varied reactions. Broadly speaking, we see two main approaches when companies begin to embrace digitalisation: one is to attempt to rush to digitalise everything – and the other is to bury your head in the sand and hope it all goes away. Neither is helpful when it comes to unlocking the wealth of efficiencies that the age of digitalisation makes possible. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that, despite a great deal of discussion around digitalisation, it isn’t yet a core part of many businesses in shipping. A recent smart shipping survey found that, while most maritime industry executives see digitalisation and Big Data as a transformative force, only 8.7%1 currently see it as a major part of their operations.

So, what are some of the barriers to adoption and how do we overcome them? It’s clear that the technology is, by and large, ready. The onus is more on data solutions providers like us to focus on the human elements, and cost of retrieving that data, that are crucial to success or failure in the adoption of digital solutions.

First and foremost, shipping is a notoriously fragmented industry, and many offices and companies find themselves in the situation of not realising the data that they have at their disposal; or, how to join the dots and find hidden efficiencies. This requires solution providers like us to create services that can easily be used by multiple teams, and can draw together multiple datasets. They need to be built in a way that is usable, and intuitive for large teams to collaborate on. That’s why we focus on how data is derived from the vessel, stored, indexed and retreived within our systems, so that it’s easy to combine datasets from various places and find otherwise hidden efficiencies and synergies.

This is why we have intentionally have made our platform open – so that it’s easy to use an API to interface with it and leverage the data. Bringing together new datasets in this way has great potential when it comes to predictive maintenance in areas such as hull coatings. As we look to help all our users make marginal gains, there is a great deal of expertise that we can build into the platform to make sure that all the angles are covered.

Another vital element is the relationship between ship and shore, which digitalisation is transforming. Traditionally, captains have been the ultimate arbiters of all the information that flows on and off the ship. So, there are often some cultural hurdles that need to be overcome when you’re using technology that takes a lot of this out of their hands. For instance, captains might think that they are being monitored by a shorebased team that won’t necessarily understand why certain decisions were made. Providing a shared data platform, accessible and populated by the teams both afloat and ashore, will build trust.

Coming from a seafaring heritage, we can see that transparency needs to benefit both sides. There are two parts to this – technical and cultural. From the technical side, we need to make sure that the reporting environment does not add work to the workload of those afloat. Instead we we work with legacy systems and new connectivity services both old and new, to reduce the time spent on reporting, while increasing the usefulness of the data. This could mean, for example, looking at something like the noon report, which has for centuries been the main form that the ‘narrative’ of a voyage takes. It wouldn’t make sense to add another box in the ship that requires constant attention. Instead, if we can find a way to, at the touch of a button, log changes in activity, the rest of the data is supplied by the automatic data collection of speed, fuel use, etc. This then creates a chronological picture of the voyage, which is much more useful and addresses legislative vessel performance requirements such as MRV and SEEMP.

With these kinds of technological innovations in place, on the cultural side, we can work with our customers to make sure that the increased level of transparency they experience ends up as a net positive for their business. If there’s increased ship-to-shore transparency, there needs to be a mutual understanding there that this is going to be used to enhance performance – not as a tool to catch the captain out.

Behaviour is also crucial to maintaining safety. While collecting more data doesn’t risk the loss of control over a vessel, if data is intercepted or hacked, it would have serious commercial consequences. Cyber security needs a joined-up approach throughout the entire chain of communication. It needs everyone, at every risk point, to make sure that they have the appropriate technology, and more importantly, human behaviours in place, to minimise the risk of a security breach. This is a matter of everyone maintaining procedures like regularly changing passwords and not plugging in external devices without proper precautions. While we use sophisticated encryption at our end to maintain data security, and ensure that the proper policies are in place to prevent a breach, human behaviour is the determining factor in keeping data safe.

The most important key to digital success however, is to listen first to what the shipping community needs and adopt a pragmatic approach to digitalisation – focusing first on what makes the biggest impact and ‘bang for your buck’. Moving in this way makes it a lot easier to focus on what’s going to bring the greatest advantages to the business, collaborating, and joining the dots that matter, rather than trying to optimise everything at once.

This is the thinking that underpins our current voyage monitoring offering to the market, OTIS (Online Tracking and Information System), which provides weather, security and navigational data. We service over 11000 vessels, providing highly accurate location data – with many thousands of locations transmitted every day. This allows us to give owners, operators and shore crew the most accurate picture available of where their ship is, and what it’s doing. This minimises the risk to ships and crew from adverse situations such as weather or piracy to name just a few, and makes sure the voyage is as efficient and as safe as possible.

This informs the next phase in our development journey, which is to use the data we already have (and new datasets as they become available) – and to use machine learning techniques to build predictive models based on analytics and data from past voyages.

The most important factor here is to start with what makes the biggest impact to the total voyage as a whole and go from there. As we see it, this is weather, which is the largest contributor to performance often by orders of magnitude. By comparing some actual voyages against recommended routes, we see the scope of some of the potential savings just from weather routing. In one example, avoiding adverse weather could have used one third of the fuel when compared to the route taken, and still arrived on time. Looking at efficiency in this way, it’s clear why we need to take weather as our starting point.

Adopting Big Data and digitalisation to optimise your business is a lot like going on a diet – it’s a journey to becoming leaner, healthier and more resilient. And just like a diet, you need to focus on the things that are going to make a real difference first – cutting out the burger and chips rather than just switching from regular to diet coke. And similarly, it needs to take account of your lifestyle and routine to avoid becoming a crash diet, or something that is given up after a few days. Technology needs to do the same – by taking a pragmatic approach, looking for the big ticket items and focusing on the human element, we can use data to help the shipping community become healthier in the long term.