The International Chamber of Commerce’s Digital Standards Initiative (DSI) has completed the mammoth task of attempting to find common digital data standards for a raft of widely used trade documents.

Finding uniform data points for trade documentation, and ways of transmitting them, is seen as a necessary step to achieve interoperability between financial institutions, trading companies, logistics providers and port and customs authorities.

In turn, digitalisation advocates argue that interoperability is needed to achieve a widespread move away from traditional paper-based trade documents.

The DSI’s Key Trade Documents and Data Elements (KTDDE) project has worked over the last two years to identify 36 key trade documents in use globally.

“We’ve created a common thread, so that by adopting our recommendations, any organisation will be on the road to interoperability,” DSI head Pamela Mar told GTR ahead of the report’s launch at the Commodity Trading Week event in London on April 24.

“It’s only if parties are using data in the same way, where you will actually have interoperability,” Mar said. In practice, this means using common data fields and filling them out in a uniform way.

The effort was chaired by Robert Beideman of GS1, an organisation that governs standards for barcodes.

It was decided early on that instead of trying to create brand new standards for each document and attempt to apply them globally, the project would identify the most commonly used digital standards for each document, if any existed.

“We recognise that no new data standards have to be developed in order to digitalise the trade processes covered by the documents in this report,” says Gerard Hartsink, the founding chair of the DSI advisory board, in a foreword to the report.

“The KTDDE analysis shows that, across global supply chains and the key trade documents that power them, there is a fair amount of standardisation of electronic and digital versions of key trade documents,” the report says.

“Additionally, some digital documentary processes are already seeing meaningful adoption by industry.”

Of the 36 key documents identified, the DSI found 21 already have standardised digital versions, and even where there are multiple versions in use, they are generally interoperable. This list includes important tools such as bills of lading, commercial invoices and air waybills.

Six documents have multiple standards with little scope to harmonise them, including letters of credit, packing lists and purchase orders.

“While workarounds might exist, the real need is for standards development organisations to partner to drive interoperability,” the report says of those documents.

Nine of the trade documents do not yet have any digital standards.

Emmanuelle Ganne, a senior analyst at the World Trade Organization, says the KTDDE project “is a major stride in moving towards interoperability in cross-border trade as it incorporates the work of the key standards bodies”.

“It lays the foundations for digital trust at scale through secure, verified data sharing among supply chain actors.”

But there is still significant work to be done to achieve interoperability, which requires co-ordination between a wide array of organisations around the world.

The KTDDE report includes a plea for better communication between all the types of industries, institutions and regulatory bodies in trade.

“There is a tangible progression toward digital-first approaches in many sectors, yet awareness and adoption vary greatly between communities and regions,” the report says.

“There is good work on digitalisation across global supply chains but overall stakeholder coordination is lacking. A less siloed, and more community-driven approach would help to accelerate digitalisation.”

The report urges traders, financiers and logistics providers to use and help develop digital platforms that are compatible with major standards, and adopt a set of best practices for data elements outlined by the KTDDE.

The DSI also calls for legislative and regulatory support for documents that have a legal or regulatory component, such as those required to pass borders and clear customs.

Some countries, such as Bahrain, Singapore and the UK, have already passed legislation allowing electronic versions of paper trade documents.

The KTDDE project included participation from the industry bodies such as the International Air Transport Association and International Federation of Freight Forwarders; tech companies such as Nextrade and Finastra; as well as insurance companies, banks and others.

This week’s report is the third and most comprehensive to be produced by the KTDDE project, following updates in March and October last year.