Era of mandatory digital data exchange dawns on global ports

Credit: Getty Images

Mandatory rules that require national governments to introduce electronic information exchange for ship reporting and clearance processes at ports came into effect on 8 April 2019.

The new requirements, governed by revisions made in the Annex to the IMO’s Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention), apply to ports in all countries of the 123 contracting member states that have ratified the FAL Convention to date.

Regional governance at ports has resulted in non-standardised reporting documentation and procedures being established from port-to-port, with each port having developed their own customs, immigration, and other reporting procedures. The consequence being the type, format, and number of separate documents that a ship must submit differing from port-to-port; yet the information sought on cargoes and persons carried is often identical.

The norm for information exchange between ship and port has, until recent years, been the manual submission of data, often via paper form completion. Considering any ship might call at a number of different ports while in active service, during the course of a voyage the ship’s crew could be expected to dedicate many hours to port call administration while the ship is in active operation.

The practical implementation of mandated electronic ship clearance requirements mean that electronic information systems (commonly known as port EDIs) must be produced for processing port administrative procedures. A provision for a transitional period of at least 12 months has been put in place, during which paper and electronic documents are allowed for a smooth transition to electronification.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said, “The new FAL Convention requirement for all public authorities to establish systems for the electronic exchange of information related to maritime transport marks a significant move in the maritime industry and ports towards a digital maritime world, reducing the administrative burden, and increasing the efficiency of maritime trade and transport.”

However, while this regulatory shift represents a significant development towards more efficient international maritime trade, concerns have been raised around the impact of the electronification of data exchange may have on safety and port turnaround times.

Single window safety concerns

In early February, a European Commission (EC) proposal to establish a European maritime single window (EMSW) for the exchange of data between ships and ports was formally adopted, following agreement with the European Parliament and Council. Expected to enter into force in 2025, the agreement has been warmly welcomed by the maritime sector, including European ports.

However, the EC’s push for the mandated use of an EMSW was not without controversy, with many elements being initially opposed by port authorities. The new EU rules arrive following great investments already made to establish National Single Windows (NSW) under previous obligations set by the EU’s Reporting Formalities Directive (RFD), which entered into force in 2015. The NSW requirements resulted in governmental agencies in most EU countries establishing separate but well-developed electronic information systems and existing port community systems (PCS), which facilitate single-data submission for port and cargo authorities.

Ahead of agreement on the EMSW, port authorities had voiced concerns around the need for EU regulation to take well-established systems into account and not to increase complexity. The ports of Hamburg, Antwerp, and Rotterdam, have urged the European Transport Committee to vote against the EMSW when an amendment proposal sought to introduce an EU level access point interface, in addition to the new harmonised interface that would be developed at European level for the NSW.

If an additional EU level access point interface is to be introduced for ship reporting, the ports said that it would result in delays, which would in turn endanger safety. By further extending the reporting chain at the access point at the EU level, the level of availability of operational safety data would be reduced and the risk of losing data will be enlarged. The same applies for environmental protection in European seaports, which would suffer due to data availability impact.

Ultimately, support for the EMSW among the maritime industry was secured because the agreement takes several concrete steps to reduce the administrative burden of the EMSW, including the repealing of the current RFD.

European ports will be able to report the same data sets to each NSW in the same way by creating a EMSW maximum dataset, while EU member states will be able to ask for additional data under exceptional circumstances without having to ask the EC first. The regulations will also build on the existing NSWs and PCSs, allowing ports and shipping lines who are currently using a PCS as a one-stop shop for the reporting formalities and other services to continue doing so. The EMSW will be technologically neutral, the EC said, and will require EU states to designate a competent national authority for the NSWs with a clear legal mandate. This provides the NSW with a governance function, enabling it to hold and share data with the relevant authorities.

The European Sea Ports Organisation strongly welcomed the deal. “We see the agreement as a real breakthrough on this very technical but important matter for the maritime and logistics sector,” said secretary-general Isabelle Ryckbost. “We’re very happy that the new framework is recognising the bottom-up efforts and investments already made and under way by European ports towards creating a one-stop shop for both the reporting formalities and all other services rendered to stakeholders in the logistics chain.”

Parts of this article were originally published in SAS sister title Ports & Harbors magazine.