Ships are unloaded at the Port of Long Beach Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Shippers, carriers, trucking companies, terminal and warehouse operators and all other supply chain stakeholders that work to move goods through the Port of Long Beach soon will have a new digital data-sharing platform, officials announced Thursday.

Dubbed the “Supply Chain Information Highway,” the initiative will see the development of a new platform that will allow stakeholders to integrate their already-existing systems to easily share information digitally throughout the supply chain, streamlining goods movement.

“One of the issues our stakeholders continue to raise is the lack of visibility and data sharing,” Noel Hacegaba, deputy executive director of administration and operations, said during a press briefing Thursday. “It seems the fragmented structure of the supply chain has also fragmented the flow of data.”

The breakdown in data sharing has been an issue for years, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and an unnoticed rise in blank sailings—when a shipper cancels a port call or entire trip—shined a spotlight on the issues, Hacegaba said. The following rapid shift to record cargo then caught the supply chain off-guard, he said, despite there being more technology solutions than ever before.

“These solutions are not connected to enable the seamless transfer of data,” Hacegaba said.

“Our goal here is to be complementary, not reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The port has contracted St. Louis-based technology firm Uncomn to develop the platform, which will be accessible to stakeholders for free, Executive Director Mario Cordero said Thursday. The port is paying Uncomn $400,000 for development.

The tool will allow shippers large and small to track their cargo across the supply chain’s numerous nodes, Hacegaba said. With over 200,000 shippers that use the port and already have their own systems in place, officials want to ensure the system is flexible, he added.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all solution or dashboard,” Hacegaba said, saying each stakeholder’s existing systems are like cars, while the port’s initiative will act as a highway for the information to be transferred easily.

The platform will allow users to create their own dashboards and other digital tools tailored to their needs, Hacegaba said. With data flowing, stakeholders should be able to better plan their day-to-day operations by tracking, among other things, customs holds, container release and gate moves, to minimize delays.

Port officials expect a soft launch of the system in February. If successful in Long Beach, Hacegaba said there already are plans to scale up. The Port of Oakland has already agreed to join Long Beach in the initiative, Hacegaba said, adding that the hope is to expand to ports across the country.

Expansion of the system would require additional funding, Hacegaba said.

“Just as we need to upgrade our physical infrastructure, we also need to build out our digital infrastructure to support the supply chain of the future,” Hacegaba said Thursday. “A supply chain that is integrated and digitally connected.”

The initiative is in response to the ongoing supply chain crisis that has seen dozens of ships waiting extended periods of time at sea for a chance to unload their cargo at terminals overburdened with containers. The port has taken several steps to address the crisis, including repurposing 100 acres of vacant port land to container storage to clear docks, began moving toward 24/7 operations and announced a fee for containers that sit for extended periods on docks.

The surcharge for idle containers was set at $100 per container on the first day with the fee increasing in increments of $100 for each subsequent day. Collection of the fee, however, has been postponed by the ports of Long Beach and LA five times since Nov. 1 because improvements have been seen.

The number of containers at the ports sitting on docks for extended periods has decreased 47%, Cordero said Thursday. In Long Beach, the number of containers that would be subject to the fee has dropped 38% after rising in late November and early December, according to port data.

“By moving these containers out of the terminals, we are creating capacity that terminals need to bring those ships at anchor to berth,” Cordero said, noting that despite the backlog, the port already has moved more containers in 2021 than in 2020, which was a record-setting year.

With the help of sweeper vessels, the number of empty containers congesting the Port of Long Beach has been reduced, Cordero said. A couple weeks ago, empties accounted for 45% of containers at Long Beach terminals, Cordero said, noting that number is now down to 36%.

The backlog of ships waiting directly off the coast has declined drastically, down from over 80 ships within 40 miles of the coast several weeks ago 28 as of Wednesday, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. The full backlog, however, on Wednesday reached a record of 102 ships when vessels waiting farther out at sea and those slow steaming toward the ports are included.

The reduction of those nearby, though, does mean a reduced impact on air quality for residents of Long Beach and surrounding areas, Cordero said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet but we are making meaningful progress,” Cordero said. “With continued collaboration … we expect to continue to see progress in the months ahead.”