US FMC Commissioner touts DCSA standards as invaluable tool for streamlining maritime transportation

DCSA interview: Carl Bentzel, Commissioner of the United States Federal Maritime Commission (FMC)

Over the past 8 months, DCSA has had the honor of collaborating closely with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) on the Maritime Transport Data Initiative (MTDI). The mission of MTDI is to identify how current constraints on data communication impede the flow of ocean cargo and add to supply chain inefficiencies. The pandemic has highlighted how the lack of effective data flow can lead to significant disruption and port congestion. The MTDI effort will be critical in recommending how data can contribute to the long-term reliability of the US domestic cargo delivery system. 

As a result of the MTDI, the FMC will propose the use of common data standards and definitions as a means to harmonize digital data sharing and streamline information exchange across the maritime supply chain. As a recognized leader in standards development for the container shipping industry, DCSA has been an active participant in the MTDI, and its standards are being considered as a basis for an emerging US national standard for maritime data exchange. 

Recently, DCSA sat down with Commissioner Bentzel, who leads the MTDI, to discuss FMC’s findings, plans, and the role DCSA and data standards will play in the future of maritime transportation.

Why did the FMC start the MTDI?

Commissioner Bentzel (CB): Early on in the pandemic, we saw a 20% reduction in international cargo due to manufacturing stoppages in China. Once production started up again, there was a 20% surge in the other direction. These dramatic swings created extreme resource management challenges at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, two of the most heavily trafficked port complexes in the US. As we looked into the issues these ports were having, it quickly became apparent that maritime logistics had a data communication problem—tremendous amounts of data were being generated with no common data lexicon and no timely method for sharing it with other stakeholders engaged in moving the cargo and with the public. We felt confident we could make a positive contribution to solving this issue, which led us to launch the MTDI.

What is the current state of data sharing in maritime transportation, especially regarding interoperability? 

 CB: Every logistics stakeholder gathers and communicates large amounts of non-competitive data about events. But as any analyst will tell you, data is only as valuable as it is timely. We saw that much of the data collected during the trade process is stored in different formats and is often misdescribed to other participants. As a result, it cannot be sufficiently or efficiently provided to other stakeholders and the public, so its usability is extremely limited. From November 2021 to April 2022, we held 18 industry stakeholder meetings with 80 participants from every segment of the maritime transportation industry, from carriers, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) and freight forwarders, to longshoremen, railroads and solution providers. Within these organizations, we talked to the people actually involved in data transmission and logistics services delivery, not the CEOs. We asked each MTDI participant four simple questions: 

  • What information do you have? 
  • What form is the information provided in? 
  • What sort of information would you like to receive?  
  • What are the data gaps in the intermodal supply chain that affect you?  

It became clear that in order to streamline timely communication between supply chain stakeholders, data would need to be harmonized. We were pleased to see that DCSA had already done a lot of the groundwork in establishing a framework, and many industry stakeholders agreed with their approach.  

How would you characterize DCSA’s role in driving digital standards for maritime transportation?

CB: The FMC has been aware of DCSA since its founding in 2019 when its formation agreement was filed with FMC by the carriers. We have always felt that allowing the industry to harmonize digital communication around non-competitive practices would benefit all stakeholders, and full digitization of data transmitted across maritime transportation would be a tremendous leap forward.

We see DCSA as one of the leaders in enabling harmonized digital data communication. It is our intention to use much of what DCSA has done as a template for emerging national standards for intermodal maritime data, from point of origin to ultimate destination. DCSA standards provide an invaluable tool for achieving standardized, digital data communication in the industry.

What role will DCSA standards play in the FMC MTDI? 

CB:  We have two main sources of input for our recommendations. The first is the input provided by all participants during the MTDI stakeholder meetings, as well as the MDTI Summit held on June 1st, 2022 where we presented our findings from the past months. The second is DCSA’s standards, which provide an excellent basis on which to develop our national standard for maritime data exchange. Throughout the initial MTDI meetings, it was emphasized that it is critical to have data definitions developed and vetted across stakeholders. DCSA’s standards fit these criteria, along with information collected by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

What are the next steps for MTDI, can you say something about your recommendations? 

CB: Following the MTDI Summit in June, we are using the summer months to assess and analyze the input we received, including that from DCSA. By the end of the summer, we will share our analysis with participants, providing another opportunity for feedback before our recommendations are published in the fall.

These recommendations will outline which data needs to be exchanged by maritime transportation stakeholders and according to which standards. The standards will focus on the exchange between cargo owners and stakeholders moving the cargo, as well as the information that needs to be exchanged in real time or near real time at different points along the supply chain. We won’t mandate specific business processes, but there will be requirements regarding data accessibility and transmission performance with minimum requirements to achieve increased supply chain efficiency.

We are not going to reinvent the wheel. Our intention is to use what already exists and works in practice. We want to make sure there are harmonized definitions and a structure around them. It should therefore not be difficult for stakeholders to comply.

What advice would you give to DCSA and its members?

CB: DCSA is already fully engaged with us in this process, so my advice is mostly for the carriers: Be active participants in the digital transformation of your industry. Promote the need for standardization and adopt DCSA standards at scale. You have to be in it together, otherwise adding another 100 ships will just mean more ships are waiting out at sea to enter the U.S. Given the challenges we face, the U.S. federal government is convinced that there is a need to establish national/international standards to ensure efficient cargo movement. Based on our research, it’s clear that every segment of the industry has something to gain from standardisation. Every one of our participants said it would, at a minimum, make transportation more efficient.

There is a strong will in the US to find a solution to the issues facing maritime transportation. Common data standards are crucial to this effort, and by actively participating, every stakeholder can help ensure that the standards work for them.

Truth be told, everyone has to adopt in order for them to become standards, either through regulation or market forces. In our country, at this time, we need widespread adoption of standards to move international trade forward.