A Tangled Web of Good Intentions
Welcome to the 78th edition of The LogTech Letter. TLL is a weekly look at the impact technology is having on the world of global and domestic logistics. Last week, I took the somewhat controversial view that there are actually too many startups all vying for a limited amount of buyer and investor attention. This week, I’m trying to unravel the increasingly confusing tangle of public supply chain data initiatives.
As a reminder, this is the place to turn on Fridays for quick reflection on a dynamic, software category, or specific company that’s on my mind. You’ll also find a collection of links to stories, videos and podcasts from me, my colleagues at the Journal of Commerce, and other analysis I find interesting.
For those that don’t know me, I’m Eric Johnson, senior technology editor at the Journal of Commerce and JOC.com. I can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LogTechEric.
The White House has a plan. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) has a plan. A broad industry coalition has a plan. The Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) has a plan. The Port of Long Beach has a plan. The Port of Los Angeles has long had a plan.
That’s a lot of plans. What do they all have in common? For one, they are all trying to address a point of weakness in global supply chains: the compartmentalized and inaccessible aspect of containerized logistics data. Second, all these plans are developed either by public sector or non-profit entities.
The question you may be asking yourself by now is, how does all this fit together? Come along as I try my best to explain (because even I’m not completely sure).
The White House’s plan involves a pilot project with 18 initial participants, a mix of shippers, shipping lines, port authorities, terminal operators and chassis providers. The goal is to enable transformation information exchange between supply chain entities. Lofty goal, and very broad.
The FMC’s goal is to understand data gaps and quality shortfalls between containerized supply chain parties. It’s on a months-long quest to understand those, with the goal of delivering recommendations to the industry this summer. Again, a very ambitious project that will require very pointed recommendations.
The Supply Chain Optimization and Resilience (SCORe) Coalition wants standards for the exchange and use of supply chain data. The DCSA wants the same thing for the global container shipping lines. Standards have long been tough to develop in an industry that, in spite of itself, loves customization.
The Port of Long Beach wants to initially make cargo visibility data available to the industry free of charge. The Port of Los Angeles has similar aims, but is also providing free terminal metrics. The ports also compete pretty fiercely with another for cargo and vessel services.
All of this is happening in an environment where sophisticated shippers are already using private sector software to collect and manage data, as well as manage shipments and trade compliance. The unsophisticated ones? They’re using email and spreadsheets and free browser-based web apps.
What does this all mean?
Here’s the thing. All of these initiatives are well-intentioned. They are all trying to address inefficiencies that are hiding in plain sight. In some cases, principals in one initiative are heavily involved in others I listed here, so they are not happening in isolation. But try to look at this from the supply chain practitioner perspective. Try to put yourselves in the shoes of a shipper moving goods through multiple US ports and trying to understand the requirements, impact, and value of all these initiatives.
“What do I need to provide? How many systems do I need to log into? What if data is great through one port and terrible through another? What if two different public data platforms ask me for the same information, or I need to go to different places to access complementary bits of information?”
I mean, I can go on with the hypotheticals. But the point is, how does this all fit together?
My job is to understand how this all fits together and I don’t get how it all will work.
Again, I think good intentions have led to a scenario that is, in effect, a new version of the problem all these initiatives are trying to solve. In trying to create transparency and standardization among a fragmented and siloed world of data, the solution providers have created a confusing and seemingly duplicative web of fixes. Will this all come together? Quite possibly. Maybe the FMC project, helmed by Commissioner Carl Bentzel, will provide pragmatic, actionable recommendations to the SCORe coalition about what elements need to be standardized. Maybe the White House pilot will identify how a national data portal could actually work, how it could be properly incentivized to compel private sector entities to contribute and share the right data at the right time.
Perhaps the Southern California ports’ dueling data platforms will be completely interoperable in a way that makes the lives of shippers, truckers, forwarders and warehousing providers easier. Maybe the shipping lines all start adopting the open source standards they themselves have paid to develop.
But from where I stand, right now, this all looks like a spaghetti bowl of plans that is clear as mud to the entities it’s supposed to be enabling. Bear in mind, we’re still in the middle of a tortuous cycle of supply chain upheaval. Also remember that a historic amount of venture capital is going to fund private sector technology companies aiming to address these same problems.
Logistics is already pretty confusing, and it’s gotten a whole lot more confusing over the last few months. Let’s hope I’m totally wrong, and that we’ll look at 2022 as a watershed year, one in which a national supply chain data portal emerged, ports freely exchange data with one another, and where shippers can tap into freely available data to pipe into the supply chain management systems in which they have invested.
Here’s a roundup of recent pieces on JOC.com from my colleagues and myself (note: there is a paywall):
Marc Held, founder of Weft and Odyn, is at it again. After two bites of the visibility cherry, he’s now diving into the world of trade finance, and this week landed a $4.5 million seed round (😲 ) for his new company Fishtail.
Another early stage company to emerge this week is Aircon, which is working to help consolidate air freight shipments more efficiently. The company landed a $1 million seed round and is starting with a physical gateway in Dallas, with more to come in the second half of 2022.
BlueX Trade released an electronic payment tool in February and quickly followed that up this week with a pay-it-later product designed to help shippers and forwarders manage the working capital burden of getting container released. The tool essentially offers extended credit terms to smaller companies where rising freight and ancillary costs is stressing their cashflow.
Some upcoming events I’ll be involved in:
I’m moderating a free JOC webcast March 31 on the future of freight procurement. A key question we’ll be addressing: What part of the procurement process has moved beyond human scale, and what process still needs to be managed and executed by logistics professionals? Speakers include Wolverine’s Rachael Acker, Keelvar’s Alan Holland, and Transporeon’s Jonah McIntire. Register here.
The next episode of LogTech Live is April 1, and I’m delighted to welcome my friend Beth Pride, global trade consultant par excellence, to discuss sanctions, tariffs, technology and more. Subscribe here to get show alerts, and to see an archive of previous episodes.
I’m also leading a visibility panel at our JOC Breakbulk and Project Cargo Conference April 25-27 in New Orleans. My session, with representatives from Voyager Portal and FuelTrust, is at 4:25 CST April 26. Register for the event here.
Disclaimer: This newsletter is in no way affiliated with The Journal of Commerce or S&P Global, and any opinions are mine only.