technical interoperability

This the second part of an article co-authored by a group of leading IT and innovation executives from the freight industry, stressing the need for more comprehensive data standards to service 21st century supply chains.

The first part, which discussed developing semantic interoperability across supply chains and transport modes, was published yesterday.

In addition to semantic interoperability, and considering the huge potential of the IoT data to improve door-to-door logistic chains, there is a need to address the physical connectivity of the devices, and among the different information systems.

The DCSA [Digital Container Shipping Association] has recently defined the physical connection characteristics related to the radio interfaces to be supported by gateways that ensure smart assets’ connectivity on the vessel and on land facilities.

There are new initiatives and approaches under consideration and developments that aim to make the system-to-system communications’ exchange of operational information much easier and much less costly than today. The EIF refers to these communications as “technical interoperability”.

The overview below to connect IT systems technically is in no way comprehensive. The review, however, will identify some of the ways standards-creating organisations are now moving forward to facilitate an end-to-end transport supply chain.

While the standards and identification schemes from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), UN/CEFACT and GS1 all provide a well-established and proven solution approach that could be adopted even more widely, the details required to implement are not as clear-cut when it comes to connecting the multiple and varied IT systems of the stakeholders to provide interoperability.

Currently, several initiatives aim to reduce or even remove most of the complexity involved in the diversity of system-to-system connection. All of these initiatives propose approaches that move away from the traditional one-to-one connections that are the root cause of the lack of system-to-system connectivity of today towards a model of “connect once and communicate with many”.

In effect, they create a “network” based on agreed standards. Organisations wishing to connect their system connect to the network once and after that, they can then communicate relevant information with any other organisation connected to the network. Clearly, this makes it much easier to achieve a positive return on investment for building the technical connection with the network, i.e. invest once and see returns from being connected with many business partners.

These networks may adopt different (technical) approaches to enable a much-simplified connectivity. Various approaches can be grouped into two main categories:

  1. Networks that do not store data about the business operations within the network. They merely provide the facility to transport the digital data across the network in a trusted, secure and safe way.
  2. Networks that store data about the business operations within the network. The data may be a small subset of all data exchanged; it also may be encrypted with access tightly controlled and restricted to only parties who are authorised to see it.

There are many networks that do not store business operations data within the network itself: eg,  PEPPOL, FEDeRATED, FENIX, RISCOMEX/VISURIS, SWING, iCargo, eFreight, ORPHEUS and AEOLIX. Many of these are projects that the European Commission has funded over the years to develop those networks. The European Community now calls those networks “federative networks of platforms”. Some have been adopted widely by many organisations (all over the world).

The PEPPOL network for instance serves tens of thousands (maybe more than 100,000) private and governmental organisations in Europe and Asia Pacific. The network processes many millions of business transactions every year.

FENIX and FEDeRATED projects are currently in progress and they aim to expand the functionality, performance and power of those federative networks even further. These networks rely on the four-corner model. One organisation connects to one access point for the network. All access points in the network can exchange/transmit data (using agreed technical protocols and patterns) between each other. Another organisation connects to another access point of the network and thus, is able technically to communicate with the first organisation. This then is the four-corner model where there are two organisations plus two access points making up the four corners in the model.

Figure 1. The FEDeRATED EU-Gate living lab project extends the ONE Record “Internet of Logistics” approach to road transport whereby EU authorities will be able to access transport information when the EU eFTI regulation becomes applicable.

The technical protocols and patterns may differ for the various networks. That said, most commonly supported patterns are RESTful API (using JSON formats), Publish & Subscribe and “transfer of EDI-messages”.

The is a global initiative that aims to publish UN/CEFACT reference data models and code lists as machine-readable vocabularies (JSON-LD) that will be available to design high quality RESTful API (application programming interfaces) with a goal to safeguard semantic and technical interoperability with the UN/CEFACT standards that are maintained through a bi-annual governance process.

The IATA ONE Record approach is one example of the concept of “Linked Data”. GS1 Digital Link is another. Linked data allows companies to reference any data of third-party data sources using web URI (unique resource identifier) and through such linkage access relevant data as needed directly through the web. In this case, mode specific consignment identification as well as tracking data can be linked together.

Linked data also implies that a semantic model and an ontology exists, as is the case for the organisations and projects mentioned[1] and therefore, both the context and the meaning of the consignment and tracking data are explicit and understandable[2].

Coming to the second category mentioned above, many networks rely on storing business operations data within the network. Among many others, there are Tradelens, Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN) and traditional VANs (value added networks) like INTTRA and Descartes. The EC has funded projects to ensure such networks can more easily share data even when the data is collected and stored using different technologies. The DataPorts project (Data Platform for Cognitive Ports) is one example of those projects.

Some of these networks have been around for many years and use traditional (relational) databases to store the information in a central location managed by a single organisation. Other networks store the shared data in distributed databases that may take different forms. Approaches such as distributed ledger technologies (DLT), blockchain, EPCIS etc, all store (subsets of) business operations data that may then be accessed by participants in the network. The levels of trust, security and safety may vary from network to network. The scalability of the networks often differs considerably, as well.

The data stored in the network (“online”) almost invariably connects to databases that run outside the network (but can be accessed via the network). The data in those databases is called “offline” data.

Distributed ledger and blockchain technologies currently attract a lot of attention as a basis for trusted, secure and safe storage within a networked environment[3]. In many cases, it is easier to connect federative networks that do not store data in the network together than it is connecting networks that rely on data stored within the network. The storage technologies used in the different networks may be difficult (or currently impossible) to combine whilst maintaining support for all functionality that was available in any of the individual networks based on the storage available in the network[4].

Stakeholders’ involvement in adoption of standards

The various initiatives and projects mentioned above have literally evolved and involved many hundreds of organisations (both private and governmental). These organisations are active in every area of the supply chain[5].

Clearly, there is a very high demand from supply chain stakeholders to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the supply chain. All of those initiatives aim to improve tracking first so they have a reliable foundation of information available based on which they can make data-driven decisions with confidence.

Organisations adopting and using standards should remind the standardisation organisations of the paramount need for cooperation in developing these international standards, so they can be more universally accepted and implemented.


Supply chains today can no longer meet the heightened expectations of sellers and buyers when it comes to detailed tracking of the current location and condition of their goods. Even logistics service providers involved in the transport of the goods from seller to buyer are struggling with the lack of reliable tracking information for the cargo, the transport equipment and transport means, particularly when intermodal transfers are involved.

However, current initiatives are delivering the needed building blocks for future interoperability, both semantic (operational data) and technical (IT systems).

We are now in a transition from the standards adopted by individual transport modes to current efforts by multiple international standards organisations to identify a normalised method(s) of identification of the required data that will be applicable to any seller-to-buyer shipment, regardless of the transport mode. This shipment approach has been modelled in the past by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and e-Business (UN/CEFACT).

However, overall adoption of tracking and tracing in a multimodal approach has not yet been completed. The current initiatives improving upon the standards already developed are delivering the needed building blocks for facilitating future intermodal supply chains. Normalised information using internationally agreed and recognised IT communications standards exchanged between the transport operators and their stakeholders will provide the building blocks toward efficient interoperability. These building blocks, both old and new, should be based on common and open standards regardless of the mode of transport and regardless of any specific stakeholder group to ensure the most efficient end-to-end supply chains can be achieved.

The solution to normalised intermodal data communications between various modes of transport and the interoperability of their systems through the cooperation of the standards organisations and adoption of these new standards initiatives will help facilitate and enhance future international trade.


[1] FEDeRATED and FENIX are both committed to document the semantic models used within those projects. The clear objective is to ensure those semantic models are the same where they overlap, so the networks can easily exchange data / information between them.

[2] Linked data, semantic models and ontologies extend far beyond tracking and create a web of data that provides full transparency into all aspects of transport and logistics regardless of mode of transport.

[3] UNECE – Conference on “Role of Advanced technologies in overcoming COVID-19 disruptions in international trade”, 2 July 2020

[4] The World Economic Forum recognized the issue and issued a white paper highlighting the issue and indicating approaches to deal with the issue.

[5] Besides the projects we mentioned, many more have run and/or are running involving yet again large numbers of different stakeholders

About the authors

Hanane Becha is actively driving smart assets standardisation for key industries such as maritime and rail freight. She is currently the DCSA IoT programme project lead. She is also the UN/CEFACT vice chair for transport and logistics, leading the UN/CEFACT Smart Container Project, as well as the UN/CEFACT Cross Industry Supply Chain Track and Trace Project. Hanane has received a PhD and an MSc in Computer Sciences from the University of Ottawa and a BSc from l’Université du Québec.

Todd Frazier is strategic project lead in the US Regulatory Compliance Group and is the FedEx Express accredited representative to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). He is also chairman of the Cargo Services Conference, the cargo standards formulation body of IATA, and participates in several projects in UN/CEFACT.

Rudy Hemeleers is director of 51Biz-PPMB Luxembourg, a management consultancy and policy advisor with private and public customers in multiple modes of transport including air-cargo, road and inland navigation.  He represents INE (Inland Navigation Europe) in the EU DTLF (Digital Transport and Logistics Forum). 51Biz Luxembourg is an external advisor of the Luxembourg government (e-CMR, eFTI, EU RISCOMEX). 51Biz coordinates the FEDeRATED EU-Gate living lab.

Steen Erik Larsen is the head of technology M&A in AP Møller-Maersk, the global integrator of container logistics, connecting and simplifying the supply chains. Larsen has the responsibility for the enterprise risk management aspects pertaining to information technology in integration and partnering. He also represents Maersk in the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA).

Bertrand Minary is chief innovation & digital officer at SNCF Logistics rail & multimodal division, the third rail freight company in Europe. Due to his important experience in supply chain, rail and digital, he is in charge of reinventing rail freight business with added value, using lean start-up, UX and agile approaches.

Henk Mulder is head of digital cargo at the International Air Transport Association (IATA). He initiated and leads the ONE Record data sharing standard. Henk has degrees in IT Engineering and Mathematics.

André Simha is the chief digital & information officer at Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the second-largest container carrier in the world, whose team is responsible for implementing and developing the complex data flow between the company’s headquarters and its agencies around the globe, as well as steering the business towards the digital future of the shipping and logistics sector. Simha is also the chairman of the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA).

Jaco Voorspuij is responsible for industry engagement transport & logistics at GS1, and has worked developing global data standards with various standardisation organisations (GS1, CEN, UN/CEFACT) and is co-chair of the International Taskforce Port Call Optimization.

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