Written by Lee Bailey, chief technology officer of ShipChain. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Here’s the situation. You’ve got hundreds of trucks engaged in complex and expensive operations. It’s the sort of situation where you want to know exactly what’s going on. But even though these machines are loaded down with advanced sensory equipment, you’re getting precious little actionable insight. And it gets worse. Third parties could have more insight into aspects of your operations than you do, even though it’s the fleet operators that are paying for those multimillion-dollar machines in the first place. Doesn’t sound right, does it?
In general, fleet operators don’t have optimal control over data generated by their operations, such as GPS tracking, transit points and timing, load conditions and other important details. They don’t own their own data — everyone else does.
The first step toward harnessing the promise of IoT, or the Internet of things, is taking ownership of data. That’s not happening now. It’s the only way that fleet operators will be able to capitalize on the wealth of data available, which will in turn improve productivity, reduce operating costs and automate processes.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The market isn’t democratic, and the mechanisms aren’t in place to facilitate this sort of transactional approach to data sharing. At least not yet. On a technical level, none of the sensors deployed by third-party vendors talk to each other. Quite often they don’t even talk to the fleet operator. Instead, they all communicate with the vendors that deploy them, who in turn inform fleet operators of the status of their trucks.
That’s a problem. The industry needs to move aggressively toward establishing a unified language so that the sensors can talk to each other. The industry needs to update ownership standards in a way that empowers fleet operators and allows them to harness the data that their operations generate.
Addressing this matter requires a twofold approach, one that promotes adoption of a common language that is concurrent with a democratization of the market. As with much social and economic evolution, the best driver is usually the market itself. In this case, that driver is blockchain. The future of logistics information technology, or LIT, has to be in open data formats. And the future of open data formats has to be blockchain authenticated.
It’s this principle of empowerment that will push blockchain-based LIT to the forefront of the industry — market demand for data that have up to this point been out of reach, but now is available thanks to blockchain. Having third-party providers control valuable data that should be yours needlessly intermediates fleet operators. Nobody would willingly settle for such a scenario, yet here we are, doing precisely that because there’s no viable way to aggregate all this data in a usable and secure manner. Blockchain-based LIT disintermediates the brokerage from a position of power by ensuring that it’s centralized by the internal fleet operator, and universal standards ensure that this data are easy to query.
In practical terms, the industry needs tools that promote this vision. That means elevating blockchain by offering fleet operators and other logistics stakeholders efficient ways to interface with the blockchain, allowing internal fleets to use their own file transfer protocol servers, with the ability to use a number of different storage mediums.
Given how important data security is to the transport and logistics industry, solutions need to store fleet operator’s GPS waypoints, their PDF attachments, their shipping start and end locations, and other important data on their servers. That’s right, it’s all in their hands. Not ours, and certainly not in the hands of third-party vendors. This gives fleet operators a giant internal repository of all their shipping data that is easy to query. It’s like one single source of truth.
So, how does the tech industry get fleet operators on board? By creating the conditions for universal gains, which means incentivizing open trusted formats. In practical terms, that means offering business intelligence tools so that fleets can run reports that correspond to their needs. It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down access to huge amounts of information about their operations, along with convenient ways to harness its potential.
Think about it. Right now, the forward-facing camera on a truck transmits valuable data about what the forward-facing camera sees. Meanwhile, the temperature sensor in the back is sending completely different data to another vendor. What if these devices were talking to each other. What if that data, analyzed in conjunction, were able to provide valuable insight? What if it was possible for fleet operators to bring their logistics back in-house?
Folks on the software side of the logistics industry should be listening closely to what fleet operators are telling them to jointly develop the technology. This isn’t some top-down tech solution, it’s what fleet operators are asking for.
Based on our conversations with operators, we’ve already started tracking GPS location, and we are adding external sensor data, including trailer temperature, trailer door openings and refrigerator unit status. In the future, support will be added for maintenance data such as engine status, tire pressure and predictive repair data, as well as the ability to track the items in a trailer down to each individual stock keeping unit.
But here’s the best part. Once there is widespread adoption of these open data formats, carriers can start talking to each other, and developers can build applications that harness your own data, on your own terms. Once we’ve democratized data, we’ll discover new areas of productivity, new avenues of commerce and efficiencies that we didn’t realize existed because our vision was blocked by data blind spots and communication breakdown.
Editor’s note: Lee Bailey is a full-stack developer, blockchain consultant and entrepreneur. He has experience architecting, securing and deploying distributed processing systems, including analytics tool sets for high-budget advertising agencies, smart contracts for a variety of decentralized applications and a high-speed cryptocurrency trading platform.