Sat, June 3 2017

Ditch the spreadsheet

Operational aid: BI works in a reporting function for San Diego. Credit: Port of San Diego

Business Intelligence is moving into the realm of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, finds Martin Rushmere

A digital Swiss Army knife is being fashioned out of Business Intelligence: the tool has transformed from one viewed disdainfully by condescending chief executives as another toy for the IT department to one that now performs an essential daily function. Yet there is still some way to go before ports catch on to its full potential.

“Full realisation of the benefits has just started in the industry,” says Tianbing Qian, known as TQ and chief information officer of Ports America, the largest terminal operator in the US. Vincent Elfring, director for Africa and Middle East of Copenhagen-based Envecon adds that the aviation industry is more advanced than the port industry in using Business Intelligence (BI). He believes this is due to more process standardisation and regulation with airports.

But systems have evolved fast: introduced initially as a passive system, where managers and operators had to comb through thousands of pages of data to find the specific reports and dashboards they needed in real time, BI has evolved into an active control panel that port executives can use to accelerate efficiency and cut costs and time.

Now a third phase has begun: forecasting and with it more exciting, predictive analytics. Says Dr Qian “We are delving into business analytics using mathematical modelling, and predictive and artificial intelligence to create predictive models in partnership with Arizona State, where professors and graduates are involved. We are looking at more predictive insight and are working with customers to provide predictive insights, such as on imports availability.”

“There are tremendous opportunities to do so much more,” agrees Bryan Miller, director of professional services at Navis. “Amazon is doing the same as us - every day."

Dashboards and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are now much more dynamic and up to date, allowing real time reporting. Ports America has developed an extensive network of KPIs, with BI and other platforms, which are continuously evolving. “BI has been of great help in clarity of information.” says Dr Qian. “We have rolled out a very successful safety dashboard that lets us make more predictive safety.”

Working models

At Long Beach, Estrada Consulting of Sacramento devised a suite to combine and filter data from the systems already in place within the Harbor Department, as well as from other sources. “This allows the user to draw all of that data into one place, one dashboard,” says port spokesperson Lee Peterson. “As examples, there is financial info from billing, environmental performance and the American Association of Port Authorities on port statistics in general. So, it’s purpose-built for us, but relies on other parts and systems as well.”

San Diego port uses SAP for its BI, albeit mostly in a reporting function. Uses include monthly financial reports, budget comparisons with actual financial performance, sales and distribution data for port tenants, along with rents and lease terms, ship activity, cargo performance and revenue streams by type of cargo.

However, quantifying the benefits to sceptical port chief executives can be a difficult task. “Speed of decision making is very important to Ports America and that has certainly improved,” says Dr Qian. But, “you can’t just say that BI is the only reason for terminal performance going up. What happens if it fluctuates, is that now the fault of BI?”

“There’s no way to quantify efficiency rates,” agrees Long Beach's Mr Peterson, "but the dashboard set-up does allow those executives and analysts who use it to get more information all in one place. So, they have easy access to what they want to find.” 

A reassuring feature for financial managers is that almost no extra equipment has to be installed, as data can be gathered from the existing terminal operating system. “But, when it comes to asset performance, such as container handling equipment (CHE),  it is a very different story,” says Envecon’s Mr Elfring. “There, one sees a big gap. Most terminals don’t have the capabilities to tap into and capture the data from the equipment. So the real performance and availability of the CHE is a big mystery to most operators.”

Equally, the costs of setting up a system are difficult to estimate, with customers and suppliers reluctant to give details. Information from public documents is available for Long Beach, which paid $1.7m to Estrada to set up and maintain the system for six years to the end of February, 2018. The original amount of $1.1m was increased by $600,000 in 2014.

For the love of spreadsheets

However, despite all the advances in programming and software, spreadsheets will continue to be the industry safeguard. “Ninety-five percent of terminals are reporting in Excel. I don’t see Excel going away any time soon,” says Navis' Mr Miller . “We want to make sure of optimum marriage between digital and spreadsheets. If you know anyone who has succeeded in doing away with spreadsheets, please tell them to contact me ASAP," he says, only half in jest.

“It is not easy to implement BI,” agrees Mr Elfring. “The data at the TOS and enterprise resource planning systems at the terminals is normally a big mess. Not to mention if you are implanting a centralised solution across multiple terminals. The master data is different among the facilities. After a Herculean effort to normalise/standardise/map this data into a central repository then miraculously there is this BI solution that provides almost real-time insight. Big displays are procured and installed to proudly present this data at the terminals,” he continues. “Reports are automatically generated, dashboards for the senior management are populated on the fly. And then? Someone has to take action and look at the data and act on it. Oops; that was not foreseen.

“BI provides a lot of insights into the performance of the business. But most operators are overwhelmed by it,” says Mr Elfring, “and haven’t staffed sufficient resources to act upon it and drive performance improvements. It just stays with some nice dashboards with no one to hold the local senior management accountable.”

Equally, Mr Miller says ports need to guard against overblown expectations. "It’s all about how you do the analyses – there is nothing that is a perfect answer for all your requirements. BI does not take action, it is humans who act.”


Most ports have set up their own on-site servers, although there is a growing tendency to mix these with cloud storage. Navis has installed most of its systems on site but is moving more towards the cloud. Ports America uses Tableau software and stores human resources and a couple of other functions in the cloud, but keeps operations on site. “Don’t chase after the cloud just because everyone else is doing it," advises Ports America's Tianbing Qian. "It’s still evolving.”

Envecon says the choice of local versus cloud is not that important and should be decided on a case-by-case basis. “If the BI is a global (in the case of global port operators) initiative I recommend a hosted solution. Local managing directors don’t like to take on additional cost for global projects. Local management teams are normally very suspicious of head office BI initiatives. They wonder who is going to monitor their performance, why and what are the repercussions."

Envecon's Vincent Elfring refers to a case about 18 months ago where the centralised tool showed a remarkable difference compared with the operational performance that the terminal in question was reporting through the normal PowerPoint reporting line. "After investigation into the discrepancies it showed that the local chief operational officer was cooking the numbers - he got fired."

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