We live in the age of information. Arguments about who won the Super Bowl in 1987, or how old Harrison Ford is, or what’s the population of Chile are a thing of the past for most of us. Our daily step-counts can be measured by a wristband. We can track a truckload of sneakers as it crosses the country. It’s amazing, really.
But there are two deep problems with our data-rich lives and businesses, and they both require pressure from individuals and enterprise to help solve them.
First off, there are crucial gaps. I reflect on this every time I go to pick someone up from an international flight. My guest has provided me with flight number and arrival time. I can track the plane across the Atlantic, in real time. Google Maps has made a super-accurate prediction of how long it will take me, with traffic, to get to the airport. But I’m still left in a state of agitated expectation, often for upward of half an hour, while waiting for my friend to emerge from the security door. That’s because there’s no information about which flight’s luggage is on the carousel. And, obviously, in the end, that’s the information that would be most useful to me. Certainly my friend can text me from the interstices of the airport, but they might not have a phone plan that gives them international service. In the end, at the last, crucial stage, the data stream goes dark. I’m left scanning the faces of a stream of strangers, guessing if they look like they came from London.
It’s the same with freight, frequently. How often do you find you know that a ship with your container has arrived at a port, but not how long it’s going to take before it’s loaded onto a truck? Or you know it’s been loaded onto a truck, but not that the order is short? Or exactly when your cargo is going to show up at its final destination. And in the end, isn’t that a huge failure to provide the data you need?
The reason for information gaps is that the businesses that provide data-gathering services have their own priorities. Ocean carriers want to know where their ships are. Truck and rail companies want to make the most efficient use of their assets. On the whole, historically, shippers have not set the criteria for gathering supply-chain data. There are plenty of third-party data platforms (and some home-grown systems) doing their best to serve the interests of shippers, but they’re working with the data feeds available. Shippers need to apply more pressure to ask for the data they actually need, rather than that what it’s convenient to provide them.
The other problem is what’s being done with our data. Unfortunately, our global appetite for data gathering has accelerated considerably ahead of our ability to control where it goes. On a personal level, it turns out information about my tastes, buying habits and health are a gold mine to commercial entities whose concerns do not align with my own. It used to take a court order to get access to your mail; now, untold numbers of unseen people can easily and legally track every electronic communication you’ve ever made, your online search records, exactly where you’ve been, and when.
Sadly, legislators are ill-informed and do not yet possess the political will to fix this. Everyone should be pressuring them to get smart, and get proactive.
Then there’s the risk of hacking, which is reaching epidemic proportions. Every participant in the supply chain is vulnerable to having sensitive commercial data stolen and exploited, and from cyber sabotage. Luckily, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has set up a supply-chain task force. One of their chief remits is education, which is great, because there’s a shocking lack of awareness of the need for cybersecurity in the global business community.
Individuals and businesses need to demand better, more useful data that serves the interests of the buyers of information services, and not just the tangential motives of those providing it. Further, we all need to be more aware of the risks of agglomerating vast quantities of sensitive data in the cloud, and to push, hard, for better security, regulation and oversight.
Helen Atkinson is a contributing writer for SupplyChainBrain.