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Hong Kong shipping and logistics

Big data professionals needed, shipping leaders warn

Some companies are already taking advantage of technology to achieve cost reduction, increased productivity or “smart” programmes or devices

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 11:09pm

The maritime industry is facing a severe skills shortage in analysing and harnessing big data, which could hinder the reinvention of the struggling industry, according to a survey by a maritime exhibition and conference organiser.

The survey released by Sea Asia found 63 per cent of industry leaders – comprised of CEOs, chairmen and directors of maritime and offshore companies – believed that lack of access to big data was “holding back their ability to utilise it”.

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Twelve per cent said they were taking advantage of big data.

Half of those surveyed believed there was a need for more skilled big data professionals.

“Only with a competent set of professionals can the opportunities provided by big data be leveraged effectively,” Oh Bee Lock, head of group technology at PSA International – one of the world’s largest port operators – said.

“We need to look into developing the skills of our current workforce to ensure that there are professionals who are trained to collect and use the large amounts of data in the industry and make it more interesting for big data professionals to join the industry.”

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The industry has been struggling worldwide due to the global economic slowdown.

In Hong Kong, the decline has been apparent with port throughput declining, knocking the city from top spot as the busiest container port in the world in 2004, to fifth in 2015.

As the world moves towards “smarter” technologies, the maritime industry cannot be caught playing catch-up or those within the industry could be eclipsed by new entrants to the market, according to industry leaders.

“Big data has the potential to change and disrupt the maritime sector, changing the way services are offered and allowing new players with new and different skills sets to enter the market,” vice-president of marine innovation at Rolls-Royce Oskar Levander said.

“The evolution of technology means that the competitive landscape for the maritime industry is also changing quickly.”

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With the advent of social media, cloud computing and cheap data storage, companies have been able to store mountains of data they collect.

The vast amount of data is then analysed and processed to achieve cost reduction, increased productivity or the development of “smart” programmes or devices.

Some in Hong Kong’s shipping industry admit they have not taken advantage of big data, and put the blame squarely on a lack of qualified people to sift through the data and find ways of implementing its results.

A spokesman for shipper Wah Kwong agreed the firm was “lacking skills for big data analytics”.

“We probably need more platforms to share information and cultivate such culture to share data,” he said.

Wah Kwong currently collects data on ship operations, vessel performance and market dynamics, but needs big data specialists to analyse and utilise it.

However, Hong Kong-based container shipping and logistics service giant Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) is ahead of the curve.

“OOCL has spent much time and effort training our IT specialists while also working with the best in the field, including those from Silicon Valley,” an OOCL spokesman said.

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The firm said it had been collecting data from a wide range of sources, including over 7,000 vessels, route patterns, sailing schedules and shipment milestones. The resulting big data is moved into a “transportation data repository” which the company than analyses for monitoring, predictive capabilities and prevention and timely recovery.

The city’s largest port operator is one step ahead of competitors, with Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) setting up a data management system to comb through mountains of data it has collected.

A spokeswoman for HIT said the company had already used big data to create “smart shipping” solutions, such as real-time radio-frequency identification tracking, predictive maintenance strategies and real time communication with those along the supply chain.

The Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board – set up by the government in 2016 to coordinate with and help the industry – has not focused on the big data issue, but it is a “subject to be considered”, according to a spokesman.