Dossier

ONE Record: the next milestone in the digitalization of air cargo data

By Henk Mulder, Head of Digital Cargo, International Air Transport Association

When electronic data interchange (EDI) was introduced half a century ago, it rang in an era of business automation. Two decades later, in the eighties, standards began to converge towards the UN/EDIFACT standard, which set the foundations for global data exchange between businesses. Today, 95% of documents exchanged electronically in air freight use a “dialect” of EDI called Cargo IMP (interchange message procedures) or Cargo XML, its descendant and successor.

I have been an engineer since the eighties and cherish its technologies, but I am somewhat shocked that airfreight is still stuck in 1970s EDI messaging and has never assimilated web technologies such as data publication and sharing, which, after almost 30 years, are hardly new. When you consider the complexity of global transport and supply chains, the EDI messaging paradigm is inadequate. EDI was never designed to operate at this scale, and its inadequacies are holding back innovation in global logistics.

For example, when two Scandinavians, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, developed Skype in 2003, they exploited the free data exchange capabilities of the web and set in motion the demise of old-fashioned telephony. Such massive disruptive innovations are largely absent in the logistics and transport sector, with its paper forms and clipboards. The good news is that I have yet to meet transport and logistics professionals who do not share my frustration. We all want digitalized cargo.

The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA’s) ONE Record specification for data sharing is exactly that: digitalized cargo. In a few words, using the power and simplicity of the web, put your freight data on a server and get your business partner’s system to access your data as needed. There is nothing tentative or experimental about this approach; this is exactly how digital industries operate.

Take publishing, for example. If you read this article on a browser, then you have just accessed data on a server controlled by the WCO. Be assured that they didn’t send you an EDI message with the article.

ONE Record explained

So what would it take to share data via the web? Let’s say that we want to make a booking for freight with an airline. We could create a web page with all the details and send them the URL. Here are a couple of things that we would then discover:

  • Firstly, the airline would like the web page to have a certain format so that their reservations system can extract the data automatically, which translates into the need for an agreed data structure or model that everyone understands.
  • Secondly, if the web page is only read by a computer system, then it probably should not be a web page, but rather a data file on a server.
  • Thirdly, we will find we need to ensure that only the airline looks at the data, and no-one else, which means the need for access restrictions and security.
  • Lastly, engineers would want to know exactly how they should access the data on the sender’s server, which means that there needs to be a defined application programming interface, or API, so that they can “integrate” the data access into their system.

In a nutshell, this is ONE Record, a standard for a data model, data security, and a common API for data sharing.

ONE Record data model

The ONE Record data model has been designed to be data centric rather than document centric. If you compare two freight documents, for example an air waybill and a shipper’s letter of instruction, you will notice that much of the information is the same. Same shipper, same consignee, same origin, same destination, same goods, etc. There is a lot of repetition.

This is why the ONE Record data model is data centric, which means that it focuses on the common data rather than on the documents that this data may appear in. Since documents are still the basis for logistics and transport, the data model does, of course, provide for document data models as well, but only as an output and not at the centre.

Ontologies

As every freight professional knows, there are already many freight data models. The WCO data model, the UN/CEFACT model and IATA’s own Cargo XML are robust foundations for freight and logistics systems. There are many more data models than that across the industry. How do all these models fit together? Today, we use information technology (IT) systems to translate and interface between these data models.

ONE Record assumes that there will never be a single data model for anything and everything and, instead, focuses on ontologies. An ontology is essentially a “language” with its meanings and rules. The ONE Record ontology describes the language of air cargo. There are, or will be, other ontologies for other freight modes or other parts of the transport chain.

In addition, an ontology, if well designed, is fully self-explanatory. This means that two computer systems that use two different ontologies should be able to interact because they can work out the meaning and context of the other system’s ontology. In a future where every element of our life will be supported by digital systems, such ontological approaches are a necessity.

Security

The concept of data sharing introduces data security challenges. How can we make absolutely sure that no unauthorized parties can access freight data shared on the web? How can we make sure that the data we access from a third party is indeed from that party and not some sort of fake copy?

ONE Record establishes several layers of security: first, any economic operator using ONE Record will need to register with an authorized registrar and receive an electronic certificate to prove this; second, using this certificate, they can then set up access with another party; and third, the information provider will determine which data can be accessed by this particular party.

API standard

Software systems are mostly designed and built from existing components. Software architects select the building blocks, and an engineer will then “stitch” these components together. The technical term for stitching is “interfacing,” and to simplify this process, software providers equip these components with APIs, which act like a plug or a socket; all the engineer needs to do is make the right connections to the API.

In practice, web systems have their own APIs, and each new connection between two systems requires this kind of integration effort. This limits the growth of networks of systems, since each additional node has this integration overhead.

ONE Record proposes a solution for this by specifying a common API for all data-sharing platforms. From that perspective, ONE Record is a bit like the USB port on a laptop; you can connect any ONE Record data-sharing platform to any other platform without the need for software integration.

Digital management

The world is rapidly evolving into one where “digital natives” are in control of our businesses. These digital natives are not concerned with the way that information is moved between companies or even which systems they use to do it. In a digital world, data is ubiquitous, i.e. it is simply available anywhere and everywhere in the form that you may wish to consume it.

When you hear about Economy 4.0 and digital disruption, this typically refers to business models that have reshaped an old business process in a way that completely bypasses physical processes, and makes direct connections between supply and demand in some form.

The fact that goods need to be manufactured, stored and shipped via long and complex supply chains is not central to end users. Stuff needs to be where it needs to be. E-commerce companies already do this, moving goods to locations close to customers before these customers have an urge to buy a pair of new trainers, flowers for a date they have not met yet, or medication for a flu they have not caught yet.

The digital world is all about data. Data to locate goods, data to predict where goods are being moved to and when, and data on who will need them, including when and where. Efficient, transparent and rapid access to this data is a prerequisite. ONE Record is an important step towards a digital world for logistics and transport.

ONE Record’s status

Under the governance of the IATA Cargo Service Conference (CSC), which represents IATA’s airline members, a dedicated task force with representation from all parts of the air cargo sector, including a WCO observer, was created in early 2018. This group has developed a first specification of ONE Record that will be voted on by the CSC at its next conference in March 2019.

The ONE Record data-sharing concepts have already been tested in a pilot involving a shipper, a forwarder, and airlines. IATA also organized a “hackathon,” where some 50 programmers came together to test the ONE Record API and develop rapid prototypes of digital tools during a 28-hour non-stop programming marathon. These pilots and tests will continue in 2019.

IATA is also cooperating with the European Union (EU) Digital Logistics and Transport Forum, and is planning the development of a multi-modal federated data-sharing environment.

Most importantly, IATA and the WCO have cooperated on e-freight and data standards for a long time, and the time has come for IATA and WCO to join forces on the standards around data sharing on the web. Although the two organizations predate digital technologies and economies by many decades, both are unquestionably experts at bringing all stakeholders together and at building robust standards for the future: a digital future!

 

More information
mulderh@iata.org