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Thinking inside the box.

I love the shipping industry. I fell in love approximately 15 years ago in the first ever lecture I attended as an undergraduate student. The lecture was given by a charismatic professor who managed to seduce an audience of young students into the spectacular, complex and frequently misunderstood world of shipping.

Later on in my studies I started focusing more and more into containerised shipping. I was stunned by the story of Malcom McLean and his idea of transporting cargoes in steel boxes (modern containers). There was something great in containerisation that was nothing more than its simplicity. Its role has been decisive, albeit usually overlooked, for the formation of the modern economy, as we know it.

Container shipping remains at large a humble hero. It’s not popular, doesn’t attract much attention but works in the background to deliver (pardon the pun).

Some might even say that container shipping is boring. Steel boxes are consolidated in ports, loaded into vessels, then usually after a very long journey, they reach their final destination. Doesn’t sounds very exciting right? Well, I beg to differ.


Container shipping is highly complex and fascinating.. But it is containers themselves that often hinder those characteristics. Indeed, the revolutionary technology that changed the course of the global economy conceals some of containerisation’s most fascinating characteristics. Container vessels do not carry steel boxes – they carry commodities that are just packed inside steel boxes. It’s the need for a specific commodity in Europe for example that activates a global shipping network connecting it with the supply side somewhere in Asia or America. But what’s inside the container is often overlooked.

We largely tend to think and act in terms of TEUs. Take for example, publicly-available data either for container shipping or ports. It is hardly the case that someone could retrieve data that would provide information beyond total number of TEUs. Critical characteristics that make container shipping such a great industry, like port of origin and destination, types of containers, commodities carried (including weight and value), vessel port-calls and many more are extremely difficult or very expensive to find and thus analyse.

Today, more and more companies and public agencies embrace the “open data” culture across the globe. They realise the huge potential of a new generation of software engineers and computer scientists willing to experiment with data and come up with great ideas to fundamentally disrupt current state of affairs. This is a unique opportunity and our industry should not take a spectators’ seat. Young boys and girls across the globe are ready to devote large amounts of their time to tackle highly complex problems and come up with simple yet extremely powerful solutions. But to do so, they need access to data that makes containerisation such a unique industry.

The next technology that will alter the course of container shipping will without a doubt include some highly sophisticated algorithms, codes and software. But I am afraid that relying solely on charismatic professors to make new scientists love containerisation is not enough anymore.

However, complexity and the access to data have the power to attract their attention.


For feedback, questions etc contact me at: Thomas.Vitsounis@nicta.com.au

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