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Flip the script: dancing with data

Grant Allen, Head of Technology programmes for Geo at Google, talks about the opportunities for shipping to benefit from wider digital disruption and the potential for crowd-sourced maritime data to underpin real time decision making.


7 February 2023
Grant Allen: Head of Technology programmes for scaling Google Maps globally. Credit: Grant Allen

Data is playing an increasing role in efforts to streamline maritime operations, lower the use of fossil fuels and harness the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI). Largely viewed as disruptors by the shipping world, entities such as DNV’s Veracity online data platform, Maersk’s Logistics Hub, the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s H2 matchmaker, Marine Traffic’s global ship tracking platform and others are using data not just to fill in the gaps but to build bridges to other sectors and connect the supply chain as never before.

Head of Technology programmes for scaling Google Maps globally, Grant Allen’s experience in the development of Google Maps in addition to his time as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer for Dow Jones’ enterprise business (including risk and compliance products) makes him an ideal candidate to highlight the opportunities for clever use of data. The top of his list is crowd-sourced data from communities of interest which could be analysed to deliver strategic insight to individual user groups.

Data, gathered from users such as ship crews, leisure users, port operatives, etc via social media feeds or specific platforms, could be fed into machine learning software and processed using AI. “These would look for what’s typically called ‘sentiment’ or ‘topics’, which identify the content of a discussion and can tell audiences, ‘Here’s the central topic of this conversation and the patterns mentioned in the conversation’. If you, your ship, your freight forwarder, or your agent or the port you’re heading to are mentioned in a particular conversation, you probably want to pay attention to that one, versus general scuttlebutt about what’s happening on the other side of the world,” he explains.

This could assist real-time decision making. In the case of snap strikes that could cause long delays for vessels berthing or cargo handling, Allen suggests, machine learning could condense conversations from social media. This would allow users to make the decision to reroute their ships to nearby ports or slow steam to their destination within minutes of a strike being announced, far in advance of an official announcement by the port. This would be similar to the user generated alerts for accidents on Google Maps, which allow users to choose different routes or adjust their expected arrival times. In a maritime context, he says, this information could apply to delays, strikes, disruptions, fuel issues, piracy and more.

Sharing data

Addressing concerns about the impact on competitive advantage and asset security, Allen points out that satellite imagery is now good enough to allow those with access to count individual containers being loaded on to a ship. “The best way to think about this is that the genie cannot go back into the bottle. The imagery is here, it’s only going to get better and the analysis is only going improve. Rather than denying that it’s here now, you need to ask yourselves, how do we make the most of that for the shipping industry?”

He strongly believes that maritime data sharing will become the norm in the near future, following in the footsteps of a number of other industries that have grappled with advances in technology. “It’s almost going to solve itself. Not because the custodians of that data are suddenly going to become more open and more willing to share, but because they’re going to quickly realise that they no longer have a monopoly on that data,” he says.

The availability, fidelity and value of satellite imagery and photometry are great levellers for data monopolies, Allen explains. “You cannot lie about having 12 ships in queue at your port when I’ve got satellite imagery from five minutes ago that shows 38 ships queuing five miles offshore, ready to unload.”

While this may erode some competitive advantage for a port, from a shipowner perspective the ability to feed this information into fleet routing programmes and generate historical trend data is incredibly useful. Furthermore, regulators would have a new weapon in their arsenal for sanctions compliance, particularly in instances where vessels turn off their AIS devices. Satellite imagery can also be particularly useful in scenarios such as the South China Sea, the Black Grain Corridor and more, where information is difficult to come by and narratives may be shaped by political motivations.

Allen acknowledges that there are specific situations in which data discretion is required, such as the location of military bases, naval vessels and other national security assets. In such cases, there would be the need to filter content generated by users or disruptors to the field, both of whom may not be attuned to security concerns and may release sensitive information without any intended malice.

Approaching horizons

A game changer on the maritime horizon, says the Google Maps guru, is the presence of satellite connectivity disruptors like Starlink that can – in some cases – offer a better signal at sea than on shore. Reliable connectivity with no bandwidth restrictions will open the door for greater use of technology at sea – and provide the technical means to roll out autonomous shipping. “The real issue is liability though,” he explains, suggesting that the issues being faced by self-driving cars are a good indicator for those that maritime will face.

A more immediate focus, Allen suggests, is edge computing, which focuses on data processing near the point of generation. Although this technology has repeatedly been discussed as an ideal means to facilitate real time data analysis and decision making, it was presumed to be a future technology. “Although you couldn’t do this 10 years ago, a lot has changed and the technology is here,” he says, adding that ships can process data as it is created at sea rather than when in port or via satellite transmission in batches. “It completely eliminates issues of latency and bandwidth.”

Although Allen’s interactions with the maritime sector have led him to see the industry as overly cautious, he believes that digital change is inevitable and that a few powerful disruptions could propel shipping into a more data-savvy future.