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The growth of maritime informatics

Mikael Lind, Richard Watson, Jan Hoffmann, Robert Ward and Michalis Michaelides on the emerging discipline to create a digitally connected efficient, sustainable and resilient industry.

The maritime industry recognises there is a need for smarter collaboration to enhance operations, satisfy clients’ expectation of transparency and predictability and respond to societal concerns. Maritime Informatics, originally defined as “the application of information systems to increase the efficiency, safety, and ecological sustainability of the world’s shipping industry” was developed by data scientists to meet the needs of practice and to be applied cooperatively by practitioners and data scientists.

The current article explores how this emerging discipline can be a powerful tool to enhance cooperation and improve decision-making within the industry to address emerging challenges.

Maritime informatics to raise efficiency

Shipping, the most efficient way of transporting goods across the globe, handles about 90% of the world’s trade. It enables regions and countries to exploit their comparative advantage, and thus improves the lot of many citizens.

Trade facilitated by shipping and the application of Ricardo’s comparative advantage principle have created a global economy. Competition has contributed to this success, as it generates a constant need to innovate to lower costs even further. Efficiency is the long-term success factor In stable times.

Maritime informatics takes a holistic approach to shipping enabling higher levels of transparency, predictability, and visibility of all transport operations connected with shipping. Collaboration starts with information sharing that leads to raise efficiency integrating operations and stretches to digital twinning to enhance operations.

Maritime must strive for the same maturity of transparency and predictability as other transport industries are achieving

The self-organising nature of the shipping industry strongly influences information requirements and the spatial-temporal data needed to manage, for example, a voyage or a port visit. Digital data streams are the fulcrum of coordination, because the many actors involved in a voyage and a port visit must share data in real-time to organise the many associated activities and to ensure connectivity to other means of transport.

Strong voices in the shipping industry are pushing for a digital transformation that will satisfy clients’ expectations of transparency and predictability. The maritime industry must strive for the same maturity of transparency and predictability as other transport industries are already seeking and achieving for end-to-end transport chain visibility, reliability and efficiency. Maritime Informatics will be a key factor to achieve this.

Maritime informatics for increased sustainability, safety and resilience

The sea has been a source of transport, food, and entertainment. However, with increasing ocean temperatures, sea level rises, and massive plastic waste in the ocean, we are endangering a major source of food. At the same time, aquaculture and windfarms are adding to our dependency on the seas.

The world is facing more frequent and larger disasters because of global climate change and a growing population. Ports are particularly vulnerable because they are typically in low-lying coastal areas in large conurbations. Seaside cities will have to spend billions on adjusting to more frequent flooding and extreme weather events.

More recently, trade wars and the Covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated the brittleness of a highly interconnected society. In turbulent times, responsiveness favours immediate survival. The pandemic has made us realise the need for increased agility and resilience. Agile organisations can quickly redeploy their critical capital and competencies to meet emerging societal needs, such as quickly delivering bulk healthcare supplies to dozens of countries when needed. Resilient organisations can recover quickly from disruption as circumstances change.

Covid-19 highlighted the dependence of the world on shipping to execute a resilient global integrated supply chain. Agile factories can reconfigure their production for necessary healthcare products and other suddenly high-demand goods, but without open ports and cross border trade this would be a futile effort. A recent UNCTAD policy brief provides a 10-point action plan to strengthen international trade and transport facilitation in times of pandemic.

There is a drive for enhanced situational awareness, especially necessary in times of turbulence, across the full spectrum of activities in the movement of goods from origin to destination gluing the actors in the self-organised ecosystem of shipping together. Once digitised, an industry gains greater insight into its present and future and can more flexibly respond to a rapidly changing environment, and quickly establish new collaborative ventures.

Being able to flip the switch from efficiency to agility is determined by organisational information systems that support exploring what is possible and then quickly reprogramming standard operating procedures. Such resiliency is not feasible without a digital foundation to operations and planning. The digital integration of production plans and shipping capacity and schedules is a necessary element for a resilient global society that can handle pandemics and mass disasters that affect many.

Maritime informatics should be on the strategic decision-making agenda for all stakeholders in the shipping sector, because it embraces the full range of competencies needed to raise the capital productivity of the industry. In addition, it is an evolving science that can be rapidly harnessed to address emergent problems because it can improve the quality of maritime decision-making, embracing a systems perspective, to increase the safety, ecological sustainability, agility and resilience of the world’s shipping industry. By doing so, it can boost the contribution of the maritime sector to the realisation of several goals within the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

We need to find ways to embed Maritime Informatics within university circles, so there is a cadre of specialists who have the flexibility to redirect their research agendas to address critical current problems in cooperation with industry.

Many developing and Least Developed countries lack the necessary digital infrastructure needed to coordinate effective disaster relief and recovery.

Maritime Informatics should be inclusive and design solutions that are sufficiently robust and frugal to serve all ports and shipping companies. Such an ethos will advance the less developed economies and facilitate disaster recovery globally through standardized data sharing and common systems.

Originally published in the UNCTAD Newsletter.

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