Initial findings from five months of weekly virtual meetings with maritime and intermodal stakeholders were presented on June 1 at a virtual summit of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC).
The Maritime Transportation Data Initiative (MTDI) Summit had been planned as an in-person gathering, but the surge in COVID-19 rates in Washington D.C. prompted the switch to a virtual format.
Commissioner Carl Bentzel, who led the data initiative, opened the plenary session by discussing the overwhelming need for transparency of data related to the movement of goods within the supply chain.
Bentzel referred to the FMC’s annual report, which found that overseas containerized cargo from pre-pandemic to the late fall of 2021 averaged a sustained growth of more than 20%.
In 2020, however, the world container fleet lost as much as 13% of its total carrying capacity, while the United States likely lost even greater capacity due to the higher levels of congestion.
He noted that this combination of increased trade and decreased capacity due to congestion is a reason the nation is suffering from inflation.
Commissioner Bentzel reviewed the FMC’s mission to ensure an economically efficient system of international ocean shipping liner services, while looking back at his interactions and visits to the nation’s ports over the last several months during the initiative.
“The adage that once you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port is true,” Bentzel said, noting that the operations of each port within the United States are vastly different. During his port visits, Bentzel said, he was struck continually by the immensity and complexity of port operations and the need for “closer cooperation between multiple actors.”
In summarizing the need for change in the system, Commissioner Bentzel once again cited the example of “why can I track my pizza every step of the way from order to delivery, but not my cargo container that is worth millions of dollars.”
Remarks from Other Commissioners
Commissioners Rebecca Dye and Max Vekich also made brief remarks during the plenary session. Commissioner Dye said she understands that change in complex systems is challenging, especially when human behavior is involved.
Commissioner Vekich added that he hopes the MTDI is able to create solutions without unintended consequences and collateral damage, and that more communication between stakeholders is necessary.
During the Maritime Data Initiative meetings, held from December 2021 to April 2022, every stakeholder answered four questions:
• What are the key data elements that are integral to your operations?
• What data do you not currently have access to that would improve your efficiency and performance?
• How do you get the data you need from other parts of the supply chain? Does this create inefficiencies?
• How do you provide data to your customers?
Summit breakout sessions reviewed these questions again and session facilitators presented the conclusions of each session at the closing meeting of the summit.
Better Data Definitions
The first breakout session facilitator reported back to the group on the need for better data definitions, specifically when it comes to the definition of container availability. The data on the status of a container is often plagued with inaccuracies between the physical release of the container and its readiness location in a terminal. This creates inefficiencies within the system.
The group also noted that harmonized system (HS) codes can be complicated to apply to goods as they can be both broad and narrow at the same time and making the best use of HS codes requires the services of an expert who is familiar with the system.
The second breakout session highlighted the importance of all parties being on the same page in regards to definitions of the data, with standardization and interoperability being paramount when it comes to data transmission.
Multiple parties often can be involved in the handling and exchanging of data which can create redundancies, making it essential to ensure the right entity is updating data as it is transferred within the supply chain.
The lack of data and data fluidity, as well as issues with data accuracy, were discussed at the third breakout session. Stakeholders are eager to see good accurate data become available to answer a host of questions on a container’s cargo: what commodities are in a container; who owns it; by what method is it traveling; is it going a short or a long distance; and are all the products in a container going to one destination or multiple destinations.
The answers to all these questions are important to create efficiency.
Participants in the fourth breakout session noted the need for information sharing within the supply chain and the problems that could arise with the sharing.
Some entities within the supply chain don’t want to share information for confidentiality or security reasons. For example, if there is a container full of play stations sitting at the port, that is not information the entities would want to be shared publicly.
Creating a safe, secure data technology and infrastructure takes a lot of time and money, and some entities, such as small trucking companies, simply don’t have the capability for it.
Another challenge raised was that keeping data in a centralized location could make it vulnerable to bad actors and could wreak havoc on the entire supply chain.
Commissioner Bentzel concluded the summit by discussing the next steps for the MTDI. He will continue to review comments and tapes and then present the preliminary recommendations to the other commissioners in July.
Following this, Commissioner Bentzel plans to go out into the field and meet further with industry stakeholders during the summer to get input on the preliminary recommendations.
In his closing remarks, Commissioner Bentzel acknowledged that the industry and federal government need to do better. He expects to encounter new obstacles, but also new opportunities in continuing to learn how to better integrate data into the supply chain, but said he is committed to the pursuit, which is “too important not to invest in.”
He thanked all participants for their efforts the last several months and said he hopes to put a national policy into place which results in the implementation of national standards for national maritime data transparency.
To see the dates and topics of the past initiative meetings, plus links for online viewing, visit the FMC Maritime Transportation Data Initiative website at www.fmc.gov.
CalChamber coverage of previous meetings is available here.
Information compiled by Nicole Ellis, CalChamber international affairs and media relations specialist.