Hacking for a smarter port

Last September a Customs NL delegation took part in a hackathon to contribute to a more efficient Port of Rotterdam.

At the beginning of September, around a hundred hackers from all four corners of the world took on the challenges of the World Port Hackathon (WPH) in Rotterdam. During this fourth edition – under the motto: The Smartest Port – a Customs NL delegation participated for the first time. Joint organiser Léon Gommans and André Wilmink, participant on behalf of Customs, look back on the successful event.

“The hackathon phenomenon has now been around for almost ten years”, reveals Gommans. “It is a gathering of programmers, web designers, data analysts and creatives. They put their heads together in small groups to solve problems. In certain circles participation looks good on your CV. For example, if you apply for a job at Google, they ask you how many hackathons you’ve taken part in and what you designed. Yet I still had lots to explain when I presented my plans for the WPH. For some the term ‘hacking’ still has a negative connotation. However, it goes without saying that WPH participants are eager to make a constructive contribution. I am the matchmaker who offers them a stage, along with the Port Authority. My personal goal is to make Rotterdam the smartest port, by arranging for parties to share an increasing amount of useful information more effectively. This can only be achieved through optimal cooperation with partners such as Dutch Customs, Port XL, Port Innovation Labs and Yes Delft, last year’s winner.”

App for moorings
This WPH covered three themes: Infrastructure & Logistics, Energy & Climate and Disrupt the Port, with a slight emphasis on new technologies such as the block chain, the internet-of-things and big and open data. As every year, the challenge was to attract dozens of teams – with participants from countries such as Canada, Norway, Poland and Singapore – with viable ideas. Gommans: “This edition also produced a number of interesting solutions, including a way to supply power to ships that are waiting in the port. This means that they do not need to satisfy their energy needs using their own, polluting fuel. Another team developed an Airbnb-type app that terminals can use to indicate the moorings that are not in use at any given time. It is still too soon to say which ideas will lead to actual products. What’s important is that a process of co-creation has been initiated. The first edition was small-scale and a question of experimenting. Not every participant reveals all his cards right away – you have to gradually build up trust. If it was up to me WPH would evolve to become a festival with demonstrations and sites for co-creation. This would allow potential participants to first soak up the atmosphere, to find out whether it’s something for them and if they want, to join in.”

A resounding ‘yes’
Dutch Customs took a rather different view. “Our service was asked to participate in the WPH last year”, explains IT Architect André Wilmink. “However at the time we were not really familiar with the phenomenon and didn’t know the extent to which it could contribute to our objectives. So we first attended three hackathons, including the Dutch Open Hackathon. It was a gathering of 250 hackers and a number of major Dutch companies were represented. We were impressed with what we saw there and at the other events, and recognised the added value a well organised hackathon could offer Customs. For this reason we replied with a resounding ‘yes’ to the renewed invitation to the WPH. Our delegation comprised four experts. The first few hours we were mainly occupied with sharing knowledge. The data we made available included that related to tariff groups, ship arrival times and the contents of the containers on board. We also explained our role as an enforcement organisation. Not every participant knows how things operate in the port. This allows you to steer the creative process to a certain extent, and to explain the needs of the Customs Administration. At the same time it is difficult to predict the results. The challenges are the same for all the teams, their interpretation – whether a piece of software, app or innovative concept – is up to them. Don’t forget that the participants had just 24 hours to devise something and develop it. But that’s the appeal of a hackathon.”

Digital passport for containers
The jury, which included Wilmink, selected a Delft group of students as the winner. They came up with a type of digital passport for containers, based on block chain technology – known for the Bitcoin digital currency. Wilmink: “Each time something is removed or added to the container along the route from supplier to customer, the so-called block chain, which describes all these actions, grows longer. If Customs wants to inspect the container in the Netherlands, the service is aware of the exact contents. Such a concept could be extremely interesting for us.”

“Naturally it’s not just about our interests, but also those of the business community and our enforcement partners”, concludes Wilmink. “The great thing about a hackathon like this is that you can work together in an innovative way to eliminate irregularities in the logistic chain. You also sit around the table with people who are able to process data very quickly and intelligently, some of whom could even be potential new employees. In short, participating in the WPH was a great experience, and has whetted our appetite for more.”

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