‘Visualizing’ the next phase in logistics

Welcome to the 22nd edition of The LogTech Letter, a weekly look at the impact technology is having on the world of global and domestic logistics. Before the holidays, I highlighted the technology area I expect to be the hottest in ‘21, and looked at some wrinkles related to project44’s latest funding round. This week, I’m imagining a logistics world better defined by visualization tools.

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 eric.johnson@ihsmarkit.com or on Twitter at @LogTechEric.

I am not a technical person, both in a physical and technological sense. I don’t know how to build furniture, nor do I know how to code. I need things explained or shown to me to understand how they work. I learn through repetition, and my brain connects things relationally - “oh, that process is important because this other thing breaks down, which is what three people have independently told me.”

I don’t think I’m alone. Most people in logistics are also not naturally technical. They are problem solvers and service providers, experts at process and sequence. They are not necessarily innately strong at using systems to help them do their jobs more effectively. They have had to come to the more technical parts of the job through expectation and inevitably. Tech has invaded every corner of our lives, and we’ve all had little choice but to keep up. I think back to the ‘80s, helping my grandma work her VCR, labeling the power and play buttons with handwritten sticky notes taped to the remote. Someone her age in 2021 is expected to manage a million smartphone apps and a moody wifi connection.

That’s a long-winded way of saying, I think the logistics industry is only just beginning to realize the impact of data visualization technologies. By now, many people are familiar with products like Power BI, Qlikview and Tableau (acquired by Salesforce in 2019 for $15.7 billion). These are workhorse data analytics platforms that help companies visualize data in constructive ways. But these tools, and a horde of small to large competitors, are still pretty underutilized by logistics teams.

I say this because I can count on fewer than both hands the number of times I’ve had someone proactively talk about or show me an interesting visualization output. I’ve seen countless dashboards, but I’m talking about a graphical representation of relational or traditionally disconnected data that would uncover an insight for a decision-maker. Showing me a dynamic chart on freight spend and service performance of my partners is neat. Showing me a visual that helps me understand how my behavior impacts the behavior of my 3PL, carrier and drayage provider, that’s another level of this issue.

I am the farthest thing from an expert on visualization software. I don’t know a relational database from a graph database from a business analytics tool. But in some ways, that makes me the perfect cipher for explaining why this is all so important. Logistics rank and file ought not to be in the position of having to build the foundational connections that generate powerful visualizations.

Ideally, the platform should make those constructs happen under the hood. More realistically, there will be a specialist on the team who can build the visualizations for less technical colleagues to consume. It’s never ideal, though, for a critical function to be captive to a single person’s strengths. So the future will probably see more low- and no-code environments that enable those lacking technical prowess to be more adept than they ordinarily would be.

The proliferation of visualization tools that transform analytics into pictures will touch almost every aspect of global trade and logistics. I did a webinar in December with some IHS Markit colleagues and Kharon, which builds analytics tools to help corporations understand if they are at risk from dealing with restricted entities. Kharon displayed a really powerful relational graphic showing how a company’s supplier in Ireland was indirectly connected to restricted parties in Russia and China. Those connections were in the database, but the graphical representation made it very clear so much clearer.

I referenced an article a few weeks in this newsletter ago about Figma, and I’ve been trying to educate myself on the power of that tool as well. It’s centered around collaborative graphic design, and I’m imagining an environment where data BI tools get converted to first iteration visualizations that can then be collaboratively reimagined in real-time. 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder how much a visualization is worth relative to static logistics database information. All I know is that I hope my grandkids can build me an instructional visualization when I’m struggling with the streaming device implanted in my neck.

Here’s a roundup of pieces on JOC.com the past two weeks from my colleagues and myself (note: there is a paywall):

  • Some procurement software experts I spoke with in late ‘20 expect mini-bids to become much more common in ‘21 for a key reason. Why only rely on resource-intensive annual procurement events when the market is shifting so rapidly and service providers in some modes aren’t even strictly honoring the terms of those long-term contracts? 

  • I spoke with SEKO Logistics President and CEO James Gagne about the 3PL’s second large PE investment in five years, a signal that it has truly left behind the era of its partner network strategy in favor of owned key hubs and targeted acquisitions in the cross-border e-commerce and value-added forwarding services segments. 

  • Turvo doesn’t necessarily like being characterized as a TMS, but it’s a term the logistics industry is familiar with, thus giving context for how Turvo is trying to reposition execution and collaboration for shippers and 3PLs. I spoke with chief revenue officer Jeff Dangelo about the company’s evolution.

  • The theme of this week’s newsletter is particularly relevant to a piece I did in late ‘20 on Gnosis Freight, which is building software for US importers based on the idea that the biggest hurdle to technology usage is rapid change that prevents adoption by users. Gnosis is taking the counterintuitive position that a system needs to initially look a bit like Excel and then gradually modernize in look and feel as the users get more comfortable with it. In other words, the system will evolve with its users over time.

And here are some recent discussions, reports, and analysis I found interesting:

  • I’m generally not inclined to share “top trends of the year” pieces but this one from BlueX Trade was informative for me, as was this piece from Charley Dehoney (who is entirely too good at writing about logistics technology to also be a good investor and operator). 

  • Any discussion with Cory Margand of SimpliShip is always worth a listen. He never holds back.

  • An oldie from Brian Glick at Chain.io, but definitely one to chew on. Related: Brian and I will open day two at #TPM21 Feb. 26 with a discussion about the state of affairs in LogTech. You don’t want to miss that.

  • The best tweet storm I’ve read in awhile. 

  • Moving update: still not moving to Florida or Texas.

  • Weekly Keith Rabois update: still seems to be a great guy.

🚨 TPM21 registration is live, and so is the agenda. We’ll have two days of #LogTech focused programming Feb 25-26, ahead of the main program, which kicks off March 1. Each week until TPM, I’ll be highlighting a tech-focused session we’ll be hosting. 

This week, I’m focusing on a session centered around the impact automation will have on the global logistics workforce. It’s an issue I addressed in this newsletter in October. My contention is the industry isn’t yet ready to contend with the inevitable shakeup process automation will produce in terms of future roles and skill levels. We’ve invited Angela Czajkowski of the 3PL Shapiro, Ruben Huber of the forwarding alliance OceanX and Alan Holland of the freight procurement automation provider Keelvar to discuss this crucial issue

Since we’re making TPM virtual, getting direct feedback from the audience is trickier. So I’m wanting feedback in the form of questions I should ask panelists. Help me make these panels more interactive. 

  • What do you want to know from technology providers about how carbon calculations tools are becoming more usable to meet sustainability goals?

  • I’m hosting a panel about whether shippers prefer technology to be provided by neutral software companies or 3PLs. Interested to know what questions you would ask a variety of panelists on the subject.

  • What questions do you have about data management in logistics? I have three experts set to talk about this and want to hone in on real data management and consumption problems to ask them about. 

Clarification: In the last newsletter, I mentioned a couple stats about project44 in the context of my exploration of its latest funding round. The company clarified to me a couple points. For one, project44 said its average deal size is far greater than the annual mid-$20,000 range I wrote (10 times greater, in fact, according to the company). project44 also said its revenue is now overwhelmingly based on recurring subscriptions and not on transactions (90 percent subscription, in fact). I feel duty bound to share that. To further contextualize this, I asked a few companies (all 3PLs of various types) that use project44 if they could share a ballpark figure for what they pay. All said they paid far less than the roughly $200,000 average deal size project44 relayed to me, but they all qualified that by saying they either had a long-ago agreed deal that might not be relevant to project44’s average deal size today, or that they were only using a portion of project44’s total capability. 

Disclaimer: This newsletter is in no way affiliated with The Journal of Commerce or IHS Markit, and any opinions are mine only.