As the role of big data is becoming more and more important in the new era of automation, shipping companies are moving from a traditional way of doing business to a modern more digital world, exploiting all available data, software and tools, said Dimitris Lekkas, founder of MarineTraffic, speaking about the company’s product development process.
Q1:When it was first launched, MarineTraffic was perceived very much as a disruptor – was this your goal?
Dimtris Lekkas: The usefulness of the widely available AIS data was obvious to me since the very first steps of MarineTraffic. However, the achieved growth exceeded my expectations very soon. The extend and the diversity of the applications where this data would be used, was beyond my imagination. Today, MarineTraffic has really changed the shipping industry by making it more efficient and transparent.
Q2: Up to now, crowdsourcing and community contributions have played a significant role in the success of MarineTraffic; do you see this continuing to be the case over the next ten years?
D.L.: Crowdsourcing was and still is a crucial part of MarineTraffic. The members of the community (station operators, photographers, data curators) share with us the same passion in disseminating quality information to a wide audience. We are determined to support our community as much as possible, in terms of providing more tools for collaboration and trying to keep them motivated. I would like to see crowdsourcing expanding further in any kind of information that helps others, from the rating of a ship supplier to the quality of a shelter for leisure boaters.
Q3: Big data, and the ability to manipulate and understand complex datasets, is being leveraged by an ever-growing number of businesses; how has this increase in demand for information influenced your development plans?
D.L.: It is true that the demand for intelligence is ever-growing. Large businesses, especially those related to finance, execute strategies based on advanced software. The role of big data analysis is becoming more and more important in the new era of automation. Traditional shipping companies will eventually switch to a new way of thinking, where decision making is based on advanced analytics, rather than on an employee’s subjective opinion.
MarineTraffic is leveraging the power of big data analytics and machine learning, combined with the unlimited processing resources of the cloud technologies, to make a shift from a tracking data provider to an intelligence provider. Real-time and historical tracking data is turned into pre-voyage and post-voyage analytics and helps us predict the destination, the route and the ETA of the vessels. Going further, we are working on the supply and demand metrics in shipping, on predicting the availability of tonnage at a specific area and time and on the trends of the commodities transported by sea.
Q4:With so many possibilities to develop new and exciting tools to help MarineTraffic users, how do you decide what to prioritise?
D.L.:Prioritisation is never easy. It involves decisions that may not please everyone in the team and adds pressure when we try to allocate limited resources. Since product growth is closely related to the company’s growth, the ability to prioritise projects effectively has a major impact on everything.
Our main drive for product development is our passion to deliver something useful and usable, that will eventually improve the life of our customers, either individuals or professionals. Although this approach involves subjective decisions, it led to the exponential user acceptance that MarineTraffic met at its initial steps.
As the product and the team grows, we combine several prioritisation methods. The “Must do”, “Nice to have”, “Won’t do” classification is fast and efficient, involves the whole team, but still is subjective. At the same time, we are using “fixed time slots” assigned to different teams or classes of products, ensuring that nothing is left at the bottom of the queue for ever. Of course, there are a lot of metrics that are considered, such as the prospect of revenue, value vs. effort, cost of delay, the ability to make incremental investments, as well as the technical capacity of the engineering team.
Q5:How much does user feedback influence your design process?
D.L.: Users feedback is fundamental to our product design process. We have adopted the “Lean approach” to meet the challenges of product development, notably: We build Minimum Viable Products trying to get them in the market quickly, avoiding long development cycles. Once the MVP is live in the market, user feedback is one of the most important factors driving the next stage of the product development.
Q6: How did you first come up with the idea of aggregating and visualising AIS transmissions from vessels?
D.L.: I have been building radio electronics, writing computer programmes and sailing from a young age. I loved ships in every way – just watching them passing by or sailing around the world aboard a tanker with my father who was a captain. In many ways the origins of MarineTraffic can be traced back to these obsessions and experiences. Eleven years ago I became aware of AIS and the fact that every ship over 300GT was required to transmit data about its position and characteristics over the public airways. I could not resist experimenting with the reception and processing of this data. I’d also become a fan of the recently launched Google Maps. And so MarineTraffic was born.
Q7: Do you consider that the visibility brought by MarineTraffic has altered the maritime industry, and if so, in what ways?
D.L.:What MarineTraffic has altered in the maritime industry is that decision making is now more data-driven and based on trusted information equally available to all. Our mission is to provide transparency, delivering trusted and unbiased vessel tracking information, ensuring fair competition and better domain awareness.
Q8: What role do you see MarineTraffic playing in the maritime ecosystem of the future?
D.L.:I envisage MarineTraffic being the globally trusted point of truth for every information related to the shipping industry. I see MarineTraffic growing as an essential management tool for shipping professionals and covering everything from chartering and bunkering to document exchange. I foresee shipping companies moving from a traditional way of doing business to a modern more digital world, exploiting all available data, software and tools.
Above article has been initially published in MarineTraffic Blog and is reproduced here with kind permission.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
About Dimitris Lekkas
Dimitris Lekkas is the founder of MarineTraffic, a Researcher, Teacher, Application Developer, Database Administrator, IT Security Manager and Project Manager in a wide variety of academic and business applications. He has been an Assistant Professor of Information and Technology in the University of the Aegean, a SEP in the Hellenic Open University and a Consultant in Information Security, Applied Cryptography and PKI. He has also been an IT Manager at Intermed Overseas SA.