Dossier: Destination....Data!

Making digital collaboration possible: the WCO Data Model – latest developments and implementation guidance

By the WCO Secretariat

In October 2021, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reported that despite COVID-related interruptions, container throughput in international ports remains at or near record levels[1]. Even if the growth in cross-border movement of goods is not evenly distributed among countries, it is no longer feasible for any border control agency such as Customs to manually process import, export and transit processes without creating major disruptions to cross-border trade.

Customs administrations have been exploring digitization for several decades now. Today, all of them (with very few exceptions) report that they are using some sort of computerized system for their clearance processes. A key lesson learnt is that the digital transformation of Customs is not an overnight process, but a journey during which many IT solutions have to be experienced as technologies evolve or emerge, from basic standalone software for data input of Customs declarations to sophisticated, multi-module web-based systems.

The need for a common language

While the primary and pragmatic focus in implementing digital technology might be to transform the paper-based process into an electronic one, making systems interoperable with other systems is equally critical. Disconnected computerized systems built in silo will not make it possible to get rid of bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

According to the WCO Digital Customs Maturity Model[2], the capability of an IT system to interoperate with other systems at the national level – either within the organization or with other government agencies in a Single Window environment – and at the international level is the primary indicator for evaluating the maturity level of a Customs administration in terms of digitization.

A fundamental requirement for successful communication between individuals is that they all speak the same language. This is also the case for communication between electronic systems.  A common language is required to ensure that information flows seamlessly across different IT systems. In this regard, the WCO, through the Data Model Projects Team (DMPT), has developed and is maintaining the WCO Data Model (WCO DM).

The WCO DM is a compilation of clearly structured, harmonized, standardized and reusable sets of data definitions and electronic messages, to meet the operational and legal requirements of cross-border regulatory agencies, including Customs, which are responsible for border management. As a global standard, the WCO DM has been organized in such a way that the complex nature of the data requirements for various cross-border procedures can be developed and understood in a simple, consistent and harmonized manner.


The WCO DM is a universal language for Customs processes which facilitates interagency digital collaboration at national and international levels. It was also created to facilitate the work of economic operators in fulfilling regulatory requirements.

In accordance with the General Annex of the Revised Kyoto Convention (GA – RKC), Customs administrations retain the right to determine the data required for Customs declaration. Therefore, each country using the WCO DM may request different data. However, they all should use a similar language and have harmonized the way that data requirements must be submitted.

In other words, wherever the standard is in use, economic operators can submit data requirements in the same way. This means that they do not have to establish different methods to fulfil the requirements, and this significantly reduces the cost and complexity of complying with export/import formalities as operators can essentially use the same system to comply with different administrations’ requirements.

Enabling the interoperability of business-to-government IT systems, as described above, was the primary objective of the G7 (Group of Seven), comprised of the world’s seven largest so-called advanced economies, when it took the initiative of creating the Model and handed its maintenance and development over to the WCO back in 2002. By streamlining export/import data requirements, G7 leaders wanted to increase their countries’ national competitiveness.

Latest developments

The WCO DM, aimed at enabling seamless digital collaboration, has been developed to address all necessary data requirements of cross-border regulatory procedures in the context of a Single Window environment. In order to simplify its architecture, the components of the WCO DM are organized into small building blocks called information packages (IP). Each information package is a subset of the WCO DM which is relevant to a specific context.

Certain information packages, such as those for Customs declarations or Cargo reports, are directly related to Customs procedures and are therefore maintained by WCO working bodies. Some other information packages are related to data requirements and processes which fall under the competence of other international organizations. The WCO continuously engages with those organizations to ensure that they request the creation of an information package when digitizing data reporting processes. Recently, the WCO Data Model Projects Team (DMPT) has worked with stakeholders in the maritime, food safety, waste management and postal sectors.

Port formalities

The DMPT is supporting the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in updating its IMO Compendium on Facilitation and Electronic Business (IMO FAL Compendium). This Compendium is a tool for software developers that design the systems needed to support transmission, receipt and response, via electronic data exchange, of information required for the arrival, stay and departure of a ship, persons and cargo in a port. The FAL Compendium harmonizes the data elements required in respect of a port call and standardizes electronic messages with the aim of facilitating the ship-to-shore exchange of information and the interoperability of Single Windows, thus reducing the administrative burden for ships linked to formalities in ports.

The collaborative work undertaken by the IMO and WCO teams has resulted in the alignment of the WCO DM, particularly the IMO FAL Derived Information Package (DIP), on the Compendium. The updated IMO FAL DIP has been incorporated in WCO DM version 3.11.0, released in December 2021. In addition, practical guidance on implementing the IMO FAL Compendium using the WCO DM has been developed and published, including a Message Implementation Guide which provides additional technical information for implementers.

To promote the IMO FAL DIP among maritime authorities/operators, the WCO has been working with the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH).  The two organizations have recently decided to develop Customs – Ports Cooperation Guidelines to support communication efforts and further promote the convergence and integration of Customs – Maritime Single Windows.

Food safety electronic certification

The WCO Data Model Project Team has also supported digitization initiatives in the area of food safety certification. It has contributed to the work of the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems (CCFICS) Electronic Working Group to update the Guidelines for Design, Production, Issuance, and Use of Generic Official Certificates. The updated Guidelines state that the WCO DM CODEX Derived Information Package (DIP) is to be used as a base model when developing certificates for paperless certification of food which are aligned on the CODEX reference data model. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) approved the updated Guidelines in November 2021, and work to align the WCO DM DIP on the amended CODEX data requirements has started.

Postal consignments

The Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the WCO jointly developed CUSITM, an electronic standardized message to be used by postal operators to transmit mail item information to Customs authorities, and CUSRSP, another message enabling Customs to respond to a CUSITM message. The two messages were aligned on the WCO Data Model and a related WCO DM DIP was created. However, this DIP was only included in the Annex to the Joint Message Standards.

In 2020, the UPU Standards Board proposed that the two message standards be revised to include data related to pre-loading cargo referral processes for security purposes. The DMPT not only aligned the respective WCO DM DIPs related to postal consignments, but also required that they be included in the main part of the message specifications. The objective was to ensure that Customs and Postal operators use the WCO DM when developing systems enabling electronic Customs – Post exchange of information. This is of critical importance to Customs administrations in terms of being able to process data from postal operators and other Customs administrations properly in their automated clearance or risk management systems. At its November 2021 meeting, the WCO – UPU Contact Committee approved the changes to the Joint Message Standards, along with the Message Implementation Guides.

Notification and consent procedure related to the movement of waste

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal provides for a control system with regard to transboundary movements of hazardous and other wastes. Parties to the Convention are required to implement a notification and consent procedure known as “prior informed consent” (PIC). The WCO Secretariat has engaged with the Basel Convention Secretariat to explore options for a system that would allow for the automation of the procedure. Pilot projects on the electronic exchange of information and other initiatives may be established in the coming months, based on the deliberations of the Fifteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, to take place in June 2022. Use of the “DangerousGoods Class”[3] (WCO ID 12C) might be a starting point for progressing in this area and facilitating the dissemination of information via and between Single Window environments in different jurisdictions, in a standardized and harmonized manner.

WCO DM now available through a Web App

The DMPT is committed to producing annual releases of the WCO DM in order to keep it up-to- date. A transparent maintenance procedure was put in place to enable interested parties to request changes to the WCO DM. The WCO published WCO DM version 3.11.0 in December 2021, as a result of the maintenance process conducted by the DMPT from September 2020 to May 2021.

As already mentioned, in addition to incorporating changes requested by Members, WCO DM 3.11.0 introduced two new Message Implementation Guides, one for implementing the IMO FAL Compendium and the other for implementing the WCO – UPU Joint Message Standards.

Previous versions of the WCO DM were made available on the WCO website in a downloadable format. Version 3.11.0 is published as a web application (App) aimed at enhancing user experience in working with the WCO DM. The App displays WCO DM components and helps users navigate easily through different WCO DM data objects, e.g., classes, data elements and information models.

In accordance with the WCO Council Decision of December 2020, the WCO DM is available free of charge to all interested parties. Those interested in accessing the WCO DM must connect to the App and examine the Terms and Conditions of use.

Implementation guidelines

The ultimate objective of the WCO DM is to enable interoperability of systems at the global level. For this purpose it will need to be widely adopted by WCO Members.

In order to increase the level of adoption of the Model, it is crucial that international legal instruments make direct reference to it. The comprehensive review of the Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC), which is currently underway, opens up some opportunities here. The DMPT considers it essential that the WCO DM be included in the body of the Convention as a way of enabling progress towards global interoperability.

Nevertheless, WCO Members have already committed to adopting the Model by issuing the Recommendation of the Customs Cooperation Council concerning the use of the WCO Data Model. This Recommendation calls on Members to:

  • Adopt the WCO Data Model for the identification and definition of all cross-border regulatory data requirements related to pre-arrival/pre-departure formalities and procedures for import, export, and transit;
  • Use the WCO data elements, their names and reference numbers (WCO IDs), the data element descriptions and the character representations (including the suggested code lists) in describing and composing electronic messages; and
  • Use the standard electronic messages described in the WCO Data Model for Government to Government and Business to Government /Government to Business electronic data exchange.

WCO Members that are considering the adoption of the WCO DM may take the following steps:

  • identify the areas for implementation: the Model covers a lot of procedures related to Customs law (e.g., Imports, Exports, Transit, Cargo report, Manifest, Authorized Economic Operators), as well as trade regulations (e.g., Origin, Phytosanitary, Food safety, Animal health, Endangered species, Environment, Cultural goods).
  • identify the data requirements of the selected process: this involves taking stock of the list of data that each selected process requires. This step could be accomplished by examining the existing legal framework, which may include a list of the data elements in one of its technical Annexes, examining the databases of existing information systems, or examining the data fields used in paper forms. When the selected process involves different government agencies, each agency usually has its own data requirements which will need to be harmonized. In other words, data requirements will have to be grouped based on their meaning and purpose, and similar data elements will have to be reconciled into one;
  • map the list of national (or regional) data requirements to the WCO DM and develop a “My Information Package” (MyIP): selected data elements will have to be matched to the WCO DM. The mapping exercise results will create a MyIP which will become a subset of the WCO DM. Ideally, all data elements should find their match in the DM. If not, non-matching elements should be disclosed in the MyIP as “extensions”. As such, the MyIP could indicate the level of conformity of a national dataset to the WCO DM. “Extensions” should be temporary, which means that solutions should be found for those data elements.
  • implementing the MyIP in the IT system: the MyIP acts as the data blueprint, and should guide the overall data design of the system. Implementing the WCO DM in an IT system ensures that the system can receive and/or produce data that comply with the WCO DM technical specifications. Ideally, this step should be taken once there are no longer any “extensions” in MyIP, to ensure maximum conformity to the WCO DM.

Economics operators

By making the Data Model free of charge for economic operators, the WCO hopes more of them will adopt it. If economic operators should align on the Model to comply with cross-border regulatory agencies’ requirement, they may also use it in their commercial processes. Although the Model was not developed to support the digitization of commercial documents, it does cover some of the data elements found in commercial documents such as the invoice, packing list and bill of lading. This alignment will enable information to flow smoothly along the supply chain, allow data to be re-used easily by the various supply chain parties, and enhance the integrity and quality of the data.

More information


[2] Page 15, Information Technology (IT) Guide for executives

[3] A Class, in the context of the WCO DM, is essentially a group of data elements that provides detailed or specific information relating to cross border transactions. The “DangerousGood Class”, for instance, includes the dangerous goods technical specifications, their pollutant type, their flash point temperature, their regulation code, etc.