Crows loiter around a sign on the Queensway Bridge welcoming drivers to the Port of Long Beach Thursday, March 17, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic made a mess of the supply chain, the Port of Long Beach knew things had to get better for its shippers.

Data for shipping companies looking to use the Port of Long Beach was simply not available—and transit times were suffering because of it. Seeing this, port officials began work to implement a data infrastructure system—dubbed the Supply Chain Information Highway—to provide data visibility to operators at the port.

The system—whose initial prototype is expected to begin testing at one port terminal this summer—was developed by St. Louis-based UNCOMN, which has a long history working with governmental entities like the Department of Defense on data and supply chain projects. As part of the project, UNCOMN is enlisting Amazon Web Services to provide the Supply Chain Information Highway with one of the most secure operating environments available.

The Supply Chain Information Highway accomplishes a very simple yet crucial task, according to Port of Long Beach Deputy Executive Director Noel Hacegaba. By providing shippers a way to precisely track their packages as they move through the delivery process and providing specific details about shipping events, the system will give operators the ability to move containers in and out of the ports in a more efficient and timely manner.

“Our current goal is to get the data into the hands of the shippers,” Hacegaba said. “We want to liberate the data so that the shippers can take the data and use it to optimize their own operations.”

UNCOMN was a natural choice to tackle this problem because of its experience and portfolio. The firm was founded by retired Navy Lt. Commander Jason Carter and is located next to the Scott Air Force Base less than 20 miles outside of St. Louis.

“One of the reasons UNCOMN stood out for us in the process of determining who would be the right partner is they have a very strong record of security,” Hacegaba said. “Everything they build from a technical infrastructure standpoint is very secure.”

Port officials began reaching out to shipping companies in 2019 to gauge their feelings about the data currently available to them as they moved cargo. Most of the companies agreed on one thing: The lack of data available to shippers was interfering with a smooth shipping process.

“There are a number of operational decisions that a shipper needs to make, and not having certainty or even an idea of when that container is going to be available creates this domino effect of operational challenges for them,” Hacegaba said.

As things stand, there is no way to reliably keep track of a package as it moves from location to location because that data is not properly shared and made visible to operators.

Details like the exact time a shipment would arrive at the port, when containers would be discharged, when a shipment is ready for pick up and the dock where it would arrive are all examples of crucial pieces of information that Hacegaba says are not currently provided.

“If the carrier was sharing data with its upstream component partners, [they] would be able to plan and have the right equipment available at the right time,” UNCOMN Chief Operating Officer Nick Powers said.

The port needed a system that would not only be able to display data, but also be able to accept data from the various platforms used by the over 200,000 shippers of various sizes that work with the Port of Long Beach on an annual basis.

“After a two-year long process, what we learned is that our customers want maximum flexibility,” Hacegaba said.

The Supply Chain Information Highway is not a system “with a lot of bells and whistles,” according to Powers. The system will relay container events in a “line item” format for simple viewing and will show carriers the history of a package as it moves through the shipping process.

“We’re gathering all that data, stripping away the stuff that makes it competitively sensitive, and boiling it down to, ‘This container with this booking number or bill of lading number is in this place,’” Powers said.

While this change was needed before the pandemic, the global restrictions caused by COVID-19 exacerbated previous issues and made the creation of a new system a priority for port officials.

Waters just off the coast were littered with more and more ships, and as the backlog at the port faced mounting pressure, the consequences of an inefficient system became more apparent.

UNCOMN was brought on and started developing the system in December 2021. The firm’s experience allowed it to craft a smooth and direct path in development, meaning only minor fixes were needed once data was entered into the system.

Powers said that while UNCOMN’s experience made the development process simple, getting people to trust in that experience was a far more difficult task. Data in the shipping world is sensitive, and Powers said that many shipping operators want control over who exactly can access the data.

“There’s a whole bunch of people and they all generate data, but they do it in different standards and they also are usually unwilling to share that data with other people in the pipeline,” Powers explained. “The technology is simple. The people are the hard part.”

With security in mind, UNCOMN enlisted the help of Amazon Web Services and its Amazon S3 cloud storage system. While the port and Amazon only recently announced this partnership, UNCOMN had built a long relationship with AWS prior to this project, and the firm knew it would enlist the help of Amazon S3 for this project from the beginning.

“We have all the expertise in AWS … and the port was already kind of having conversations with AWS,” Powers said. “So that I think everything aligned to make AWS the host of this environment.”

AWS’s primary role will be to store data in a secure and easily accessible manner. According to a company spokesperson, AWS will manage the basic systematic aspects like the host operating system for the Supply Chain Information Highway and provide security for the data by storing it on an exceptionally reliable cloud.

While this system is targeted at carriers and operators, the implementation of the Supply Chain Information Highway has clear benefits for the port itself.

“We all benefit from velocity, reliability and predictability,” Hacegaba said. “When the supply chain is humming along, everyone benefits because containers are moving through our ports at adequate levels.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.