PUBLISHED ON April 19th, 2024

Co-Developing a Digital Supply Chain Management Suite

Collaboration and data sharing remain major challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. This, despite enormous progress in technological development. The virtual watch tower / VWT initiative takes a novel angle to address these two shortcomings. The vision is to create an ever-growing global community that co-creates a digital solution / VWTnet for enhanced visibility and improved supply chain risk management through private and public data-driven analytics and collaboration across supply chain networks worldwide. VWT combines collaborative software development for data sharing with community building for collaboration co-creating a public good. It is co-evolution that leads to transparency, which, alongside neutrality, brings trust as the basis for data sharing and collaboration. The goal is to establish a neutral entity backed by trustworthy and impartial actors to ensure continuity of the effort and solution for improved supply chain management.

A public good is like a lighthouse, nobody can be excluded, and everyone benefits. VWT’s primary goal is to drive on-demand collaboration around specified shipments based on improved visibility through data sharing. The VWT Community members stay in full control of the data. Everything happens in their Towers, and the data that is pushed and not pulled is governed by a commonly accepted code of conduct. No central database, no central infrastructure, and no central control is needed. There is no star topology but an ecosystem enabling unit that sits with the VWT Entity that holds the rules, registries, and the key to participation in VWT. VWT can be perceived as the internet of watchtowers. A co-created solution of the members, by the members, for the members. The VWT Entity is the guardian of the standards and protocols as well as the orchestrator of VWTnet and the VWT Community.

VWTnet does not aim to replicate current solutions but enhances Towers. Towers are off-the-shelf, tailored, or inhouse solutions to manage the flow of goods selected by VWT Community members. VWT complements the various Towers, some which are commercial, and brings value to the VWT Community members and opportunity to the commercial actors engaged in VWT. But not all actors that join VWT have a Tower. Therefore, VWT also develops and provides a minimalist Tower as well as an easy-to-use data push mechanism for those who do not wish to install a Tower at all. VWTnet is an open solution, with open standards enabling the exchange of data. Everyone involved in VWT Community shipments is asked through a power of attorney (PoA) to contribute and provide primary data related to specific shipments of VWT Community members. VWT will introduce a data validation mechanism to ensure data integrity. The open and collaborative nature of VWT, which manifests itself in the co-creation of VWTnet and its nature as a public good, also implies open standards and an open-source approach to software development. But not all software will be developed open-source, research institutes and commercial technology providers can also contribute to the development of VWTnet.

VWTnet consists of Towers, e.g., software installed by the users to manage the flows of goods, and a mechanism to push data to each other based on pre-agreed rules. The latter will also be developed in a minimalist form of open-source, but also a minimalist data pushing tool for those that don’t have and don’t wish to have a Tower, but who are part of a member’s supply chain in focus. This article outlines VWT’s approach to open-source development as a call for action to technology providers and software developers to join VWT and help to co-develop the reference code for VWTnet, a minimalist Tower, as well as an easy-to-use push mechanism for data exchange. Also, the article presents a response by TLIP (Trade & Logistics Information Pipeline) community that has replied to VWT’s call for action for ecosystem interoperability,

VWT – a public good as foundation for an open-source approach

VWT is a co-created solution that will be used for improved supply chain and carbon footprint management. VWT, as a community and a digital enabler, is designed as a public good.

VWT fosters co-opetition through governance rules by striking a balance between openness and control so that actors can share their special sauce without giving away the recipe. For example, using openness, VWT creates the possibility for cargo owners to receive data from multiple transport operators involved in their transports through APIs. Then, through control, it would provide governance for the data-pushing and data utilization process between various actors in the VWT Community. Open-source, open standards, and inclusiveness do not equal open data, which would be openly accessible to all, including other companies, governments, media, consumers, and citizens.

The creation and governance of VWT reflects public good thinking, which is based on the thinking of the American scholar J.F. Moore but goes beyond the original idea, as VWT envisages an ecosystem where actors not only co-envision the digital tool, named VWTnet, but also co-design its co-evolution.

Public good is ‘non-rivalrous’, i.e., an individual’s consumption of the good does not influence what is available for others; and ‘non-excludable’, i.e., no one can be excluded from consumption of the good. Typical example of a public good is a lighthouse where one ship’s use of the beacon does not prevent other ships from using the same.

The notion of ‘public good’ can be assumed to be ingrained in VWT as initial funding support came from governmental agencies in Sweden and Singapore to foster digital innovation and co-create economic and societal value for Swedish and Singaporean industries but also for every actor in related global supply chains. Also, technology providers co-create digital solutions responding to the needs of cargo owners, and transport and terminal operators.

The rationale for open standards and open-source

VWT as a public good implies the use of open standards and open-source to create a true inclusive asset available to all actors across supply chain networks in the world. An open standard is a standard that is openly accessible and usable by anyone. Open-source refers to any software whose source code is made freely available to the public for use or modification. However, open-source does not imply that the executable is free, and therefore, VWT will ask for a cost contribution for the management and maintenance of VWTnet and the expansion of the ecosystem. The use of open standards and open-source encourages open innovation for more inclusive and durable solutions.

In open-source software development, reference implementation exemplifies how software components can be designed and rolled out. For a distributed network collaboration like VWT, building a reference implementation has two goals:

  • Supporting neutrality: competitive neutrality of the technical guidelines and directives to avoid biases that is facilitated and strengthened by making available a technically compliant, open, and free implementation, which is co-created by the VWT Community.
  • Lowering entry thresholds: having access to an open and free version of a Tower and its components minimises the development effort required to enter the VWT Community and participate in its collaborative activities.

The benefits for developers go beyond the most immediate incentives for participating in open-source development, and includes opportunities such as learning, profiling and networking. During the process, the developers can benefit specifically from:

  • Increased adoption: open-source software will enjoy broader adoption in the VWT Community due to higher accessibility and transparency. Developers can benefit from a larger user base, which can lead to increased brand recognition and market penetration. By participation, competing developers can grow their common market volume within which they then compete freely, building on the commonly developed base.
  • Culture of innovation: open-source software fosters a culture of innovation by encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing. By contributing to VWTnet, developers can position themselves as thought leaders and innovators in their respective fields within the VWT Community.
  • Long-term durability: the robust and active VWT Community will provide continuous feedback which can ensure long-term durability of the open-source software provided by the developers.

Principles guiding the open-source software development effort

By applying certain principles for the prioritization of software components VWT can ensure return on investment.

The principle of shortest path to actual – be it minimal – usability, accelerates the progress of VWTnet in terms of functioning towers or tower components.

Establishing efficiently a layered and distributed network like VWTnet can start with technically compliant communication through developing software components that support a first iteration of data exchange protocols describing both the structure of data being exchanged (data format) and the mechanisms for performing such an exchange, including means of authentication and identification. Experience gained through practical evaluation and development then informs further improvements and the development of subsequent components in an iterative manner for fast incremental progress.

VWTnet creates value for the VWT Community

The VWT Community is a community of trust that permits that identified actors in the transport chain can push data on identified shipments and their transport progress to authorized receivers. This process is governed by a minimalist set of principles to ascertain the easy and rightful provision, access, and consumption of data. Data segregation is part of governance allowing use of specific parts of data sets. Data providers and consumers are actors along the supply chains operating individual Towers or supply chain technology solutions acting on behalf of the Towers. Each shipment identifies the actors involved in the transport to be invited to provide shipment-related data on status and progress. Only primary data will be shared via VWTnet, historic data is not accepted. The data should be pushed in near-real-time.

Final remarks – a call for action

VWT is designed as a public good which implies open standards and open-source. Considering rising disruptions and accelerating climate change VWT aims to develop the core components of VWTnet over the coming twelve months of the project.

VWT will leverage its community approach and community building capability to kick-off the builder effort at the Singapore Maritime Week 2024. A minimalist Tower and other tools contributed by the VWT Builder Community will complement existing solutions and empower Towers. At Singapore Maritime Week 2024, VWT will demonstrate parts of a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) and announce its open-source effort alongside its intention to progress the work on the VWT Entity.

This contribution covers the VWT open-source approach but is also a call for action to technology providers and software developers across the globe to join and co-create VWTnet. The VWT Community’s ambition is to drive major change bringing significant improvements in disruption and carbon footprint management to the supply chain and logistics industry in the interest of the entire ecosystem and probably the world.

We thank Abhinayan Basu and Trisha Rajput from Gothenburg University for their guidance and input to this article.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TradeMark Africa.