Trusting Third-Party Data

If a port could cherry pick the best metrics from its partners, would it?

By Lori Musser

Ports have always produced metrics related to port capacity, utilization and productivity. Tremendous competitive advantage can be derived from such data when used to polish up the marketing mix, plan for throughput and facility development, and report progress on mandates. Metrics also can help diagnose ills at the first symptoms, giving ports better opportunity to cure problems before they spread, and they can be shared with supply-chain partners to enhance the entire logistical supply chain.

Internal data has traditionally been generated for predictable needs using justifiable resources and has been held close to the vest, while external data – often limited to purchased databases – has been used sparingly. It helps a port make better decisions, but it can come at a cost. Even from trusted supply-chain partners, data generated outside port offices raises concerns related to integrity and safety.

What’s Available vs. Wish Lists

Ports throughout the Americas generally produce good measurements of their capacity. They create fewer related to performance and productivity, even though those numbers can be invaluable for decisions on asset use, maintenance, personnel and planning.

Better performance measures are on the wish list of almost every port and partner.

Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Conference at American Trucking Associations, offered the trucker’s viewpoint: “What port trucking is specifically lacking is reliable, timely data on terminal operations and equipment (chassis) so that we can more efficiently manage our truck dispatch operations.”

He said if port management, terminals and terminal stakeholders develop operational data metrics and make the information available on a timely basis, freight flow will improve and congestion will be reduced.

Data Integrity

The integrity of data is, however, a sticking point, and ports face numerous challenges to even their own metrics. Chief challenges are that not all metrics compare apples to apples, accuracy at source, differences attributable to fiscal versus calendar year or “port authority” versus “total port” statistics, and data manipulation.

On the subject of port performance legislation that has been the focus of action by the U.S. Senate this year as part of its surface transportation bill, the Retail Industry Leaders Association wrote, “Establishing a means to collect port performance data and accurately measure productivity ensures retailers can adjust their operations in the face of congestion issues and is an important step in stabilizing our transportation system for all industries.”

Dan Smith, principal of The Tioga Group, a California-based transportation consultancy, said, “There is a real danger of metrics being misused. TEU per acre is the perfect example. For years U.S. ports have been beaten up for having fewer annual TEU per acre than their Asian or European counterparts. The comparison is worse than misleading, since higher TEU per acre translates to higher costs, greater congestion and less reserve capacity to handle surges.”

Container lift rates are particularly problematic because they are influenced by number and type of crane, ship or stowage or apron design, hatch cover automation, time of day, availability of supporting yard equipment, and other factors. Smith said, because every facility is different, you need multiple metrics to understand those differences. He added, “If I have too few cranes, lifts per hour will be high but the vessel will be late. If I have extra cranes to make sure I can turn the vessel on time, crane productivity drops.”

Smith said, “We all like to be measured in ways that make us look good, and we avoid measures that expose our weak points. … [We] would be happy to be measured when the problem is fixed, but not now.”

Safety and Security Concerns

Electronic data breaches are becoming more commonplace, even for companies and ports that are vigilant about cyber security. If a third party gives competitive information to a port, even under a confidentiality agreement, there is no guarantee that the information won’t be misused, stolen or unintentionally released.

Many ports are under mandates to share information with the public. In Florida, for example, the Sunshine Law put most port documents into the public realm. Even if private industry recognizes convincing benefits from sharing data, it may justifiably fear the erosion of competitive edge.

Jim Pyburn, director of business development at Port Everglades, agreed that more information can help sharpen a port’s competitive edge. “Receiving more data from cruise lines about passenger origins, for example, could help optimize airlift, and more operational data from cargo carriers could help the region align inland connectivity.” Similarly, metrics from cargo terminal operators on picks per hour and dwell times can help customize business development initiatives.

Nevertheless, until the art of creating metrics becomes more of a science, and data security can be guaranteed beyond a shadow of a doubt, Pyburn said there will be hesitancy about data sharing.

John Mullins, director of customer service and business development for Jacksonville-based Portus, a stevedore and marine terminal operator, said that sometimes, even when respect for the need to improve the entire supply chain exists, sharing information with a port or other partner just isn’t an option. He said, “That’s the nature of the business. There may be confidentiality agreements – legal and binding contracts.”

A port that asks for the bare minimum, uses the data gained cautiously, and guards it vigilantly while strictly adhering to public access laws will have a better chance to coax key metrics from reluctant third parties.

Collection Comes First

For many ports, the pros and cons of data sharing are moot because they don’t collect or share much beyond the nominal information needed for billing requirements and annual report statistics. Likewise, their supply-chain partners, in general, share little.

While port executives quote tonnages, vessel calls, revenues and crane lifts, few can cite more specific measurements such as ROI by commodity or productivity per hour. Many of the metrics people want to see are difficult or costly to collect.

Ram Kancharla, vice president of planning and development for Port Tampa Bay, sees change coming. He said that transportation dialogue is mirroring the global Internet of Things dialogue.

“It is about better utilization of transportation assets,” he said. “Information is not being properly shared; it needs to be to increase efficiencies along supply chains, on and off the ports.”

Once concerns about privacy, security, competition and technology are addressed, the interconnection of transportation devices will bring vast opportunity. The opportunity to fix, for example, those troublesome “last mile” issues would be welcome.

Metrics hold greater promise for busy ports that operate their own terminals. Port Metro Vancouver collaborates with supply-chain partners to improve transparency. It shares data underscoring efficiency, reliability and competitiveness.

Strategic Communications Advisor Jennifer Hunt said, “We work with partners to collect and share aggregate information, including providing reports, metrics, interactive maps and real-time tracking.” She said that helping terminals, stakeholders and supply-chain partners measure and improve performance and planning gives the port a competitive edge.

To facilitate transparency, Port Metro Vancouver maintains an online dashboard offering reports and showcasing points of pride. With a performance report card showing rail, truck and vessel metrics, the port has raised data sharing to a new level.

Perhaps the most convincing reason to share data is the bottom line. Metrics are critically important to port financial partners in the evaluation of grant and loan requests. Thriving on quantitative analysis, financial entities are likely to continue to ramp up requirements for economic and environmental impact metrics.

A Two-Way Street

Data sharing is a two-way street of benefits and concerns. If managed well, the upside is huge.

Aside from security plans and confidential market intelligence, most port and partner data is relatively benign. One of the main barriers to sharing is simply not having the resources to parcel up the data, verify it, analyze it and use it. The more information at the disposal of a port – or the entire supply chain – the more likely it is to better identify strengths and settle into appropriate niches to ensure ongoing success.


American Trucking Association’s Wish List of Intermodal Data Metrics

  • Gate facility daily hours of operations (net of breaks)
  • Average truck queue time (time spent by truck in line outside the gates)
  • Average truck terminal time (time spent by truck from entry gate to exit gate)
  • Average truck turn time (total queue plus terminal time)
  • Total number of good order chassis available for interchange at terminal gate daily opening (by size: 20 feet vs. 40 feet)
  • Percent of chassis that are issued trouble tickets that must be processed prior to leaving the facility
  • Average number of chassis out of service
  • Average chassis provider facility equipment utilization rate
  • Percent of chassis available for trucker choice selection for carrier door transport

Challenges to the Integrity of Data

Apples to apples Ports and their partners might count things in different ways. Cruise lines, for example, count individual cruise passengers whereas ports typically count embarking and disembarking passengers. Ports aren’t inflating the numbers; they are just counting for a different reason.

For some measurements, ports fail to agree even among themselves. For example, while most count a 40-foot container as two TEUs, some count a 45 footer as 2 TEUS and some as 2.25 TEUs.

Errors Third-party, public census and private data have interpretation idiosyncrasies, recognizable discrepancies and mathematical errors.
Fiscal vs. calendar year Ports may use a fiscal year basis for planning, budgeting, capital investment, reporting and other tasks, but the general public and private industry often work on a calendar year. Aligning external data with internal data by year can be cumbersome and may be limited to key metrics.
Port authority vs. total port There is a difference between cargo moved over “port authority” facilities and “total port” cargo moved over all private and public terminals.
Data manipulation There are no universal standards for collecting, measuring and reporting capacity and performance data.