Why interoperability matters

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One of the things I really geek out on is standards.

I know that sounds a bit like saying you’re crazy for compliance, but hear me out: It’s a big issue in ocean shipping, where incompatible technologies, lack of transparency and confusion over what things are called cause friction and lead to inefficiency.

You have a big problem when different players in a supply chain can’t agree on fundamental definitions. Or when shippers, carriers and customs authorities continue to rely on paper documents because their computers can’t talk to each other.

Standards are the starting point for progress; so forgive me for nerding out about them. I just know that establishing standards that get humans and computers all on the same page is going to transform container shipping, global trade and world economies.

It turns out I’m not the only one with a standards obsession.

CEFACT's main priority remains encouraging interoperability: simplifying exchange of information up and down the supply chain

Back in 1996, the United Nations made standards a global priority by establishing the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT). The intergovernmental body was mandated to find ways to improve worldwide coordination and cooperation in trade facilitation and electronic business standards.

Their main priority remains encouraging interoperability: simplifying exchange of information up and down the supply chain, including commercial and governmental processes.  

Since its inception, CEFACT has made major strides in standardization. So far, CEFACT has:

  • Built recommendations and standards that reflect best practices for trade data and documents
  • Developed and published code lists used extensively in business transactions
  • Set business requirement specifications for everything from accounting to cattle registration, including the Supply Chain Reference Data Model (SCRDM), a robust data framework TradeLens has used in development
  • Established UN/EDIFACT, a widely-used international standard for electronic data interchange
  • Curated a library of syntax-neutral and technology-independent building blocks that can be used for data modelling.
  • Created coherent syntax solutions that align with domain reference models for publication

As we work on a digital global trade solution, we are coordinating our efforts: Not only has our team joined CEFACT, what we’ve learned has helped shape our processes.

To start, TradeLens has leveraged CEFACT's most basic vocabulary conventions. One tangible real-world example of what our team has learned during our journey from beta to production surrounds our use of the word shipment.

Speaking in the carrier context, shipment means, “the number of containers you need.” But in the context of shippers, manufacturers or retailers it can mean “goods.”

It turned out CEFACT had already figured it out and had the answer right there waiting for us. Their standard? When buying and selling, the term is “shipment,” and when used in a transportation context, the term is “consignment.” Adopting CEFACT’s terms saves time and prevents confusion, not just for us, but for the world. 

Standardization makes human communication easier. It also makes computer communication clearer as is the case with CEFACT’s Supply Chain Reference Data Model (SCRDM). Leveraging their open source data model, helps make the TradeLens platform interoperable with other systems out there that have also adopted SCRDM. It also saved us from creating a data model from scratch, which frees our resources to develop new features and functionalities for TradeLens.

This is just one of the ways we’re participating in the adoption of industry standards, with the goal of reducing friction in global trade

We’ve based a lot of our work on standards created by CEFACT, and we’re committed to helping to shape the future of standards through our participation. In fact, we recently shared our Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to help support industry interoperability.

And we’re looking for ways to increase our role on CEFACT to help create standards the industry can live up to—and a platform we can all rely on. Toward that end, I’ll be attending the upcoming UN/CEFACT Forum at Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland from April 1 – 5 this year. If you’d like to receive my wrap-up of the event, let me know.

Our involvement with CEFACT is just one of the ways we’re participating in the adoption of industry standards, with the goal of reducing friction in global trade.

David Jacoby from TradeLens spoke on this topic at the Logistics CIO Forum in Amsterdam, Netherlands this March.


Here’s where else we’ll be for the remainder of 2019.

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