On the 31 March 1687, the London Gazette newspaper reported: “We have Advice by a Veƒƒel arrived from the Levant, That the Venetian Ships and Gallies are fitting with great diligence at Napoli de Roman and that Captain General Morofini intends to ƒail with the Fleet the beginning of the next month to join the Auxiliary Gallies and the Convoys ƒent from Venice.”
Between 1687 and 2002, while the vessels (and the English language) had been transformed and sail had given way to diesel-powered behemoths, the standard of maritime reporting hadn’t changed much. Until very recently we knew as much about vessels on the high seas as the 17th-century readers of the Gazette knew about the intentions of Captain General Morofini. It all came from snatched reports gleaned from port agents.
Windward, an Israeli start-up based in Tel Aviv, is transforming knowledge of the world’s trade by providing insight into the movement of the 50,000 commercial ships, and other vessels, that traverse the globe, carrying over 90% of the world’s trade, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN’s regulatory agency for the maritime sector.
Global crude imports in 2013 were over $2.823 trillion, with half transported by sea. The financial trading on this volume is estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to be nine times larger than the transport value. Total exported iron ore sales in 2012 were $125 billion, the majority shipped by sea.
“Until 2010 there was no data,” says Michal Chafets, spokesperson for the company. “A ship would leave port, you would stand on the dock crying. Six months later it would come back. Between the two you would have no idea where it was.”
Black Oil Trade
Windward is providing evidence that black market oil dealing is happening right under our noses.
Sometime around August 18th, 2012, a 183-meter, 50,000-ton Liberian-registered tanker raised its anchor and left the Black Sea. On board were 600,000 barrels of crude oil. For legal reasons the ship is not named.
As the ship sailed south its unusual course caused Windward’s maritime intelligence system, MarInt, to flag it up. Rather than sail a direct course, when the vessel was about 40 miles south of Cyprus it started to execute what Ami Daniel, CEO and co-founder of Tel-Aviv-based Windward, called “an aimless journey.” A trace shows it sailing north, then heading due south-east, before heading back west, and then northeast.
At about 11pm on the night of the 20th, the vessel started up its engines and three hours later met up with a 250-meter-long, Maltese-registered tanker.
“We tasked two satellites,” Daniel told a recent conference in New York. “Zooming in you see two vessels joined. What you don’t see is a tug boat, which is mandated by safety regulations.”
The second ship then sets sail for Indonesia, where it trans-ships to a third vessel that takes the oil to an illegal refinery in Indonesia, said Daniel.
“What is interesting is the finances of the deal. This vessel costs about $2.5 million for a voyage like this. That means someone had to buy the crude oil in an off-market deal.
“All of this is happening right under our noses. No one had any idea what is happening at sea.”
That has changed dramatically. From being all at sea when it came to ships’ data, according to Windward CEO Ami Daniel, who co-founded the company with fellow Israeli Navy sailor Matan Peled,today clients can review some 100 million data points a day collected by the company. “We call this Maritime Big Data,” Daniel said at a recent presentation.
MarInt, the company’s first product, maps global maritime traffic, and then applies analytics on all historical and current data. The system analyzes the behavior of vessels around the world automatically in order to pinpoint even the slightest anomalous behaviors and patterns, which may indicate involvement in illicit activities — and sometimes may be the only available indication of such involvement. The service is used by customers from the security realm: navies, coast guards, intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies, says Chafets.
Not Everyone Is Happy With Data Transparency
MarInt was fueled by the 2002 mandating by the IMO of a service called Automatic Identification System (AIS). The service, originally developed in the 1960s, is a collision-avoidance system that broadcasts information about a ship’s speed and course, as well as contact information. Commercial satellites revolutionized the industry in 2008, by extending the range of the service, providing visibility on ships offshore for the first time in history.
But not everyone is happy with data transparency. Those who profit from market opacity are incentivized to regain their advantage, said Daniel.
The problem, according to a 2014 report by Windward (“AIS Data on the High Seas”) is that AIS has very little security built into it, so ships that don’t wish to publicize their activity can hide.
The data sent through AIS includes location, course, speed, rate of turn, depth and more. It is possible to manipulate the data, so for example changing the reported depth of a vessel in the water would hide how much actual cargo was being carried.
The report found that 1% of all ships broadcast fake IDs — a ship can claim to be a completely different vessel. Furthermore, fewer than half of all vessels accurately report their next port of call and 55% of ships misreport their actual port of call throughout their journey.
So Windward takes AIS data and combines it with a variety of other open and private sources to produce what it believes is a far more reliable picture of the world’s shipping. Data includes things like capacity of wharves and oil terminals and the complete historical data of every ship — what Windward calls a vessel’s DNA.
Two Ships Identifying As The Same Vessel
This combination of data allows the company to identify anomalies. One recent example involved the 160,000-ton Tanzanian-registered crude oil carrier Hedy. “Someone issued a commodities report saying a ship called the Hedy left the Gulf and had arrived in Tanzania,” says Chafets. “I saw this and thought, ‘that’s very odd. That does not sound very consistent with what I know from our system.’”
According to Chafets there were two different ships that appeared to be identifying as the Hedy; one was in the Gulf, one was in Tanzania. “We know that the one in Tanzania is not the same one as the one in the Gulf. First of all it is using a different type of transmitter.
“[But] the more interesting thing is that the one in Tanzania went into a dock that would have been too small for the actual Hedy. It would also have been too shallow for the real tanker.
“What is interesting is that as soon as we finished writing our report, the original Hedy, the real one in the Gulf, started transmitting again from the Gulf. This was the final confirmation. It was clear it could not have gone to Tanzania and come back.”
‘Every Ship Should Report Where It Is Going’
In this case, says Chafets, there is no suggestion that either vessel was doing anything nefarious, but, she says, it highlights the problems with relying on AIS.
“Traders use ship data to monitor supply and demand in markets,” said Daniel. “Every ship should report where it is going.” But if ships fail to report their destinations or deliberately obscure it, then it can undermine any predictions.
Windward is expanding, growing from its current 40 staff to 80 to roll out its second product, FORESEA, a financial platform targeted at commodity traders, hedge fund investors and analysts.