The port information platforms serve also private companies – Future of the Single Window?

I will always remember that phone call. 25 years ago, I had just started my work at a shipping company. I had learned how information related to ships and cargo is exchanged. Telephone, telex, telefax and, to an increasing extent, e-mail attachments were used.

I also got to know the Portnet system, which was implemented a little earlier, where the ships’ information was transmitted to the Finnish authorities – nowadays we call these Single Windows. It was obvious that this was the future. Information about logistics chains will be available on the internet.

However, Portnet covered only information to and from authorities. There is much more information exchanged between individual companies, for example from the shipper to the transport company, from the driver to the shipper and to the shipping company. The amount of information flow is extensive.

Enthusiastically, I called the Maritime Administration and asked the civil servant responsible for the development of Portnet if the system could also be extended to the exchange of information between private operators in ports. The shout I got in response forced me to move the landline phone receiver twenty centimeters away. I think his message would have reached me from the neighboring house even without a phone.

Over the years, I have participated in the development of dozens of maritime transport-related logistics chains and operations. In each of them, the unnecessary information delay related to the chain has been eliminated – sometimes more and sometimes less – and the operations of logistics chains and ports have been improved.

A few specific examples come to mind.

When in Helsinki, the completion of the port of Vuosaari was delayed and the available space of the port of Sompasaari was already at its limits, the flow of information gave solution. Trucks arrived at the port just-in-time to pick up or bring their unit cargo – no space was wasted for waiting areas, and thus more and more cargo could pass through the port area. Later, the Western harbor has succeeded in speeding up the passage of cargo through the port to a world record level – even today there is no possibility to keep large port areas as waiting areas. Most recently, I have seen how non-scheduled ships are able to reduce their speed when they agree in advance with the port when they will arrive at the quay.

These have all been great successes in the digitalization of shipping. The investment payback times have been short – when information moves quickly, the port, land transport companies and shipping companies benefit from it. Savings in fuel costs; in capital utilization of equipment (ships, trucks), port and warehouse space utilization have been tens of percent. On the other hand, these are all either the development of a single point (such as a port) or the development of a single logistics chain.

At the same time, I have seen that many development projects have failed when it has become clear how complex the mutual information flows are, how each actor has built their own systems in different ways, how the interfaces have not been opened.

Many have – like me – dreamed of ports and maritime transport, where information about the flow and condition of cargo goes to the port and drivers without delays, enabling forecasts, changes, capacity reservations, and minimization of waiting times. That is, the transition from the optimization of a single maritime transport chain to a world where information without interfaces would flow from where it is to where it is needed. But what would be the platform on which these new additional services could grow? Who would implement such a platform that others can join?

Such platforms are now common in the world’s large container ports, the ports already have huge Port Community systems (PCS) in use, which are also platforms for data flow between private companies. Will Finland/Estonia with its small ports be able to reach this development work – when our ports or stevedores do not have the resources to develop a platform to serve the exchange of information between other plyers in the port?

The circle is closing – technology, the Internet and 5G provide the basis on which my dream from decades ago will come true. The new generation working in maritime transport already understands the possibilities offered by platforms and open interfaces – also in ports, and knows how to demand.

The Finnish PortNet system from a quarter of a century ago is now being reformed into the NEMO system, where it is also possible to take into account the information needs of private operators. First, NEMO will, of course, replace the old official information exchange, but after that it will be time for the new information needs of private operators as well.

I don’t have a landline phone anymore, and the screams of the authorities are no longer heard through the handset. And it would certainly be a satisfying hum anyway.

More info of NEMO system.

The article was previously published in Finnish in the online magazine for maritime professionals Navigator Magazine on May 2nd, 2023.

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