Monitoring global trade using data on vessel traffic

Article by Graham Pilgrim, Emmanuelle Guidetti and Annabelle Mourougane: “Rising uncertainties and geo-political tensions, together with more complex trade relations have increased the demand for data and tools to monitor global trade in a timely manner. At the same time, advances in Big Data Analytics and access to a huge quantity of alternative data – outside the realm of official statistics – have opened new avenues to monitor trade. These data can help identify bottlenecks and disruptions in real time but need to be cleaned and validated.

One such alternative data source is the Automatic Identification System (AIS), developed by the International Maritime Organisation, facilitating the tracking of vessels across the globe. The system includes messages transmitted by ships to land or satellite receivers, available in quasi real time. While it was primarily designed to ensure vessel safety, this data is particularly well suited for providing insights on trade developments, as over 80% in volume of international merchandise trade is carried by sea (UNCTAD, 2022). Furthermore, AIS data holds granular vessel information and detailed location data, which combined with other data sources can enable the identification of activity at a port (or even berth) level, by vessel type or by the jurisdiction of vessel ownership.

For a number of years, the UN Global Platform has made AIS data available to those compiling official statistics, such as National Statistics Offices (NSOs) or International Organisations. This has facilitated the development of new methodologies, for instance the automated identification of port locations (Irish Central Statistics Office, 2022). The data has also been exploited by data scientists and research centres to monitor trade in specific commodities such as Liquefied Natural Gas (QuantCube Technology, 2022) or to analyse port and shipping operations in a specific country (Tsalamanis et al., 2018). Beyond trade, the dataset has been used to track CO2 emissions from the maritime sector (Clarke et al., 2023).

New work from the OECD Statistics and Data Directorate contributes to existing research in this field in two major ways. First, it proposes a new methodology to identify ports, at a higher level of precision than in past research. Second, it builds indicators to monitor port congestion and trends in maritime trade flows and provides a tool to get detailed information and better understand those flows…(More)”.