The Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) has joined forces with the Bureau International des Containers (BIC) to standardise the codes used to identify container facilities, enabling the identification of places for supply chain events without ambiguity.

Unlike airports, which have a standardised code that refers to them, container facilities don’t have unified references, and the references that they do have aren’t machine-readable. For example, the United Nations Code for Trade and Transport Locations (UN Locode), used by shipping companies, freight forwarders and manufacturers, identifies the administrative or economic area the container facility is located in, but doesn’t pinpoint the exact facility itself – which can be problematic in places where more than one facility are housed. In addition, some entries in the Locode database are duplicates of each other, while others don’t include coordinates, so it is not clear where they actually refer to.

This is an issue when it comes to digitising end-to-end trade. If events such as a container arriving at a warehouse can’t be automatically and unambiguously inputted onto the blockchain, for example, smart contracts would have to be triggered manually or at the very least be subject to some sort of human verification to ensure that the right facility has been identified.

To solve for this, the DCSA and BIC have used machine learning techniques to sanitise and align nearly 30,000 facility codes from 10 major carriers, creating a clean, machine-readable database of over 11,000 facilities in 160 countries. Each facility in the database now has a structured address, GPS coordinates and a nine-character BIC facility code assigned to it that can be easily used by digital systems across the trade ecosystem.

“The non-standard facility code is a simple yet effective example of the kind of standardisation where the industry needs to play catch up with other industries such as air travel,” says Thomas Bagge, CEO of the DCSA. “With the standardisation of the BIC facility code, the container transportation industry is one step closer to this goal. This is a good example of the foundational work required to make digital transformation a reality in container shipping.”

The new codes are available via an API, which will enable supply chain participants to easily plug them in to their systems. Meanwhile, while previous systems have had to be manually updated when changes occur, leaving them out of date when facilities are moved or closed, the two companies say that the API service will allow for automatic synchronous updates to ensure the database is always correct.

“The participants are eager to embrace the API, which will ensure the harmonised codes are widely available and in sync going forward. We see this as an important enabler for digitalisation efforts underway in the industry,” says Douglas Owen, secretary general of the BIC. He adds: “Having an agreement on how we refer to each facility through which a container can travel in that supply chain seems like such a basic thing and yet until now the larger ecosystem has not had this, which has obviously been a drag on efficiency. This is as an important step forward in making machines able to better communicate with one another, and while it isn’t something that instantly transforms the supply chain in and of itself, it’s another building block in this whole process.”