Double interview with Isabelle Ryckbost and Michael Dooms

Double interview with Isabelle Ryckbost (ESPO) and Michael Dooms (PORTOPIA)


The PORTOPIA project has entered its last year. This is a good time to make up a balance and to look into the future of the project. Therefore, we organised an interview with Isabelle Ryckbost, Secretary General of ESPO, and Michael Dooms, the PORTOPIA project coordinator.


1. What are the main achievements of the PORTOPIA project so far?

“Obviously a 4-year project with a large budget has many achievements to highlight,” starts Michael Dooms. “If I were to pick the main one,” he continues, “it would be the fact that we have been able, and this has been acknowledged by the European Commission and a set of external reviewers from ports, to move beyond the mere phase of concept or pilot development. In other words, the project has come up with workable solutions/services which have proven valorization potential. Not a lot of FP7 research has been able to achieve that level of practical implementation. Obviously, the close collaboration with ports, through ESPO as well as individually, has led to this achievement.”

Looking at the future of the project, Mr Dooms thinks that now the time has come to stabilise the platform for the long term. He says: “I really hope that ESPO membership will reach an agreement on the financial and organisational basis to continue running the project after November 2017. Finally, I have heard that ESPO is also close to reaching an agreement to harmonise modal split definitions and reporting. As one of the major indicators of port cluster performance, if we were able to also present this as an achievement, I think it would contribute greatly to the legitimacy of the industry as a whole and we could be proud that PORTOPIA also contributed to the discussions in its different work packages.”

Isabelle Ryckbost adds: “The PORTOPIA project has led the port sector into the future in terms of modern data collection and assessment. Ports are now able to collect their data in a user-friendly way and analyse them throughout technological tools and services. We are eager to continue and improve the digitalisation path of the port sector until and after the end of the project.”

2. What are the challenges of the project for the future?

Michael Dooms: “In the short term, we clearly need to find a workable and sustainable business model to continue the project. As the project benefitted from substantial private investment, we need to find a way to compensate this investment, while remaining cost-efficient and offering the services at a correct price, and still providing our private partners a decent return on investment. These are very challenging discussions as all stakeholders perceive the value of the platform very differently. Furthermore, a lot of users think ICT is relatively cheap but sometimes get surprised when discovering the investments needed. Also, we have to look towards the future so we need to create a strategic reserve to further invest in the platform, for new development and new services when the users ask for it. A solid basis of trust between ports, academics and technology partners is needed, but also some pragmatism and realism when it comes to the cost of services provided.”

3. What is the added value of the Rapid Exchange System (RES) for ports?

“For decades, more than 50 European port authorities have been voluntarily submitting their quarterly traffic data through the ESPO Rapid Exchange System,” says Isabelle Ryckbost. “The ESPO Rapid Exchange System (RES) was coordinated by DGITM, a department of the French Transport Ministry,” she explains. “The data collection was performed quarterly in an electronic format through a standard table in Excel format. Data from participating ports was then compiled and published on the ESPO website no later than 10 weeks after the end of each quarter.”

Isabelle Ryckbost continues: “With PORTOPIA, we decided to digitalise RES by incorporating it into the PORTOPIA Service Cloud. In order to stimulate the future of the PORTOPIA Service Cloud as a single window for ports data, we developed one user interface. This interface allows the digital collection of data through the Rapid Exchange System. The objective of this interface is to allow the data collection to be performed in an integrated way through the electronic PORTOPIA platform, enabling ports to make real-time analysis based on their own results against the results of their peers. This system allows ports to perform advanced analysis and to establish benchmarking scenarios, throughout dashboard and data analysis tools.”

4. ESPO has a long-standing tradition of collecting and assessing data on port governance and environmental management data. For which reason was it decided to incorporate this exercise in the PORTOPIA Platform?

“The answer is the same for both the governance and environmental modules: reduce reporting administrative burden for ports and offer useful data analysis tools to the sector,” says Isabelle Ryckbost.

“As for port governance,” Mrs Ryckbost clarifies: “the data of the ESPO Fact-Finding surveys (2010 and 2016) will be integrated in the PORTOPIA data warehouse to generate time series. Port authorities will have a profile containing governance data and will only need to update their individual information in the platform when relevant changes occur in their situation, so that the formal execution of lengthy surveys will not be needed any more. In addition, the platform will automate the analysis and make available to the ports an EU port sector a governance dashboard that will illustrate basic features of the governance of EU ports and the main trends over time, as well as provide a regional comparison of certain features of port governance. The platform will also facilitate the reporting of port governance trends to a broader audience through the exporting of analysis and graphs, which can be used in publications/websites.”

“It must be said that the PORTOPIA project allowed us to dedicate a lot of time in optimising the survey, following up the answers and assessing the results. It goes without saying that this is a fruitful investment, which comes on top of the added value that results from the digitalisation process,” recognizes Isabelle Ryckbost.

“As regards the environmental module,” she continues, “the transfer of data from EcoPorts to the PORTOPIA Service Cloud will allow ports to assess their environmental management systems in comparison to the EU average. Ports will be able to produce dashboards in key areas of port environmental management and assess variations and trends over time, related to the environmental priorities of the European port sector.”

5. What is the user perception module and how is it going to benefit ports?

Michael Dooms answers: “Some of the readers might still remember the EU’s port policy impact assessment where a general user perception exercise was conducted by the EU Commission, leading to several justified objections from ports when it came to the approach and the validity of results. I was in the room during that famous conference in 2012 and along with a lot of stakeholders, I felt that an improvement to the approach was needed. So, contrary to these previous exercises, PORTOPIA has developed an environment that allows ports to select a tailored set of criteria and have them assessed by their users (forwarders, shipping lines, tenants). We think it gives both smaller and larger ports the opportunity to conduct those measurements at a much lower cost and a much higher frequency, compared to the way it is done nowadays where they mostly need to involve external parties. What is more, results stay confidential and are not shared (unless the port explicitly wants to).

I think that the adoption of this PORTOPIA output can benefit the individual ports, the industry and policymakers alike, as it will show across different port types what matters to users and that one-size-fits-all approaches do not work. It helps ports to better understand the differences between objective performance indicators and how the users actually subjectively experience them. Furthermore, it allows ports to focus on the areas which either need real improvement, or better communication, and it avoids investing resources in superfluous areas. It also provides an improved basis to engage in joint discussions with user associations and can thus contribute to the functioning of port customer boards or panels, as requested by the port regulation. And who knows, maybe in a few years from now, we might provide some ports, who have consistently used the module, with certificates such like EcoPorts, and also organise award ceremonies. We believe it could greatly enhance the industry’s image, just as EcoPorts and related awards have achieved. It will bring the port industry at par with other infrastructure industries such as airports and rail, which have been conducting these types of measurements for a longer period.

So, currently we are running a pilot test and we invite every interested port to test the user perception module. A demo movie is available on PORTOPIA’s Facebook page and on YouTube, and at the ESPO conference in Barcelona (1-2 June 2017) we can show ports how the tool works in practice.”

6. The project will come to an end in November 2017. Are you planning to organise a final event?

Isabelle Ryckbost: “Yes, the final PORTOPIA Conference is scheduled on 9 November and will constitute a unique event to share the results of the project to the wider public. The audience will be composed of representatives from the European institutions, project partners, port actors and stakeholders. The event will be important in order to reflect on how to build on the PORTOPIA results in order to improve data collection and assessment after the end of the project. In this sense, the event will represent the natural bridge that will lead the port sector towards the future in terms of data management quality.”

7. Which lessons can be taken out from this project?

“The main lesson I take from the project is that trust is the basis for these kind of industry-science collaborations,” starts Michael Dooms. “In 2013,” he continues, “we started from an environment where stakeholders were not used to share confidential data. At various times in the project, we were faced with quite severe difficulties and they always came down to solving issues of trust between parties. While this environment of distrust is not yet totally absent, I believe that through the project all parties have learnt how to deal with each other and what ties them together rather than what separates them. Moreover, it has been quite challenging to deal with the complexity and the agendas of the different stakeholders: ESPO, individual ports, universities, private technology partners and the European Commission all have different ideas and objectives for this project and to find common ground has been a very resource-intensive, but also a very enriching experience. Also, I think that, by setting the ambition (too) high at the start, all parties felt the drive to achieve the greater goal of creating something sustainable for the port industry in terms of performance management. We are almost there, but as always, the last steps are the heaviest ones. Notwithstanding this, I believe that all stakeholders have been enriched content-wise through the project’s results and I think that it also lays the basis for a better integration of port stakeholders within the EU Horizon 2020 research programmes.”

Isabelle Ryckbost continues: “In ESPO, we learned that the port sector is ready and willing to improve its data management quality. However, the project made it clear that developing harmonised indicators is very complex in the port sector because ports use different methodologies depending on their location, cargo flows, presence of an industrial cluster, main activities, etc. The risk is always to “compare apples and oranges”. This can be avoided by involving the port community from the very beginning of the definition process of the harmonised indicators. That’s why we learnt that performance indicators need to be built up through a bottom-up step-by-step approach. With the help of the project partners, we managed to harmonise important KPIs for the ports in terms of traffic statistics, port governance, environmental management, etc. This was possible by, firstly, involving a “cooperation of the willing”, composed of a few active front-runner ports ready to work together in order to find potential common ground. Then, these ports became the “champions” of the performance indicators produced, convincing other ports to use them on a regular basis. Moreover, performance indicators come with a cost that the port industry is ready to pay only if they receive a high added value.”

“To summarise, we can say that we learnt that high quality of data collection and assessment constitutes the future of the port sector, but that port performance indicators need to be realistic, feasible and relevant at any given time.” Mrs. Ryckbost concludes: “The project has been an important learning process for ESPO and its members. Important steps have be made, but we are not there yet. We must consider this project as an awareness exercise for ports on the importance of data collection and monitoring. But it has also allowed us to put the finger on the limits of collecting data at EU level, because of fundamental differences in the situation and role that European ports are playing. Anyway, the PORTOPIA project got the ball rolling. I’m sure that we will continue on the digitalisation path.”


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