ICC initiative unveils blueprint to standardise language of trade, sidestep data duplication

11 November 2023


The International Chamber of Commerce’s Digital Standards Initiative (DSI) has released a set of recommendations to unify machine-readable data elements across key trade documents, in a bid to catalyse interoperability and align fragmented digital practices across international trade.

Launched on October 8 during the Mena Supply Chain Finance Forum in Dubai, Key Trade Documents and Data Elements (KTDDE) addresses a critical pain point: the underlying transaction data is often the same at any given point along the supply chain, but, as a result of divergent commercial practices, standards adoption and national regulations, such information often ends up being inputted and rekeyed in a variety of different ways.

These duplicative data entries not only slow down processes and introduce potential for error, but also hold back interoperability across networks and trade platforms.

Although in an ideal world, each trade document would be produced in one single format that every user around the world would adhere to, in practice this is unlikely. As such, the DSI is taking a pragmatic approach to standardisation.

“Given the reality of multiple electronic versions of trade documents in existence, whether due to national regulations or commercial practices, the DSI Industry Advisory Board holds the view that DSI should continue to focus attention and encourage the alignment of standards for machine-readable data elements as a building block for interoperability across networks and platforms,” the report says.

To achieve this, the DSI’s KTDDE working group is mapping all of the trade documents identified in the Cross-border Paperless Trade toolkit, co-published by the World Trade Organization in collaboration with UNESCAP and UNCITRAL in 2022, as well as the information needed to fill them out, and identifying existing standards that can be used to harmonise each individual data element.

The eventual aim is to create a framework where data can be entered once and automatically populate across all necessary documentation without the need to translate it between different systems’ languages.

“By creating transparency and accessibility around trade documents and their core data elements, we aim to enable a more rapid digital transformation among industry,” says Pamela Mar, managing director of the DSI.

The KTDDE report scrutinises 14 foundational documents for transport and logistics, finance and payment processes – customs bonds, letters of credit, purchase orders, payment confirmations, export cargo shipping instructions, rail consignment notes, road consignment notes, sea cargo manifests, air cargo manifests, airway bills, seaway bills, ship’s delivery orders, bills of exchange and promissory notes. They join an existing set of seven documents studied in an initial report in March, bringing the total to 21 standardised references.

In the analysis, the KTDDE working group defines the attributes shared across these documents – sorted into 12 categories such as references, dates, transport modes and goods – into a key trade data glossary, taking as its base the United Nations Trade Data Element Directory, also known as ISO 7372.

By enabling a shared understanding and eliminating definition conflicts, the glossary ensures that the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “how” of trade – such as the shippers, the goods, the destination, the date and the means of transport – are universally recognised, not just in one segment of the journey, but end-to-end.

The DSl’s continued efforts to expand the understanding of digital standards in international trade represent a significant step forward in streamlining global commerce,” says Robert Beideman, chief product officer at GS1 and chair of the KTDDE working group. “By promoting data reusability and consistency across supply chains, we are facilitating more efficient and secure transactions for businesses across the globe.”

However, there is still some way to go before this near-utopian vision can be realised.

The report reveals significant variations in the level of digital readiness and interoperability among different document types.

Among issues identified are the absence of a consistent global standard for party identification in letter of credit transactions.

“Names and addresses, traditionally used for identification, do not align with the requirements of digital ecosystems, where precise identification is crucial. Establishing a universal identifier could simplify party validation, enhance anti-fraud efforts, and enable advanced analytics for combating financial crime,” the report says.

For bills of lading, there has been more progress towards standardisation and interoperability, with industry stakeholders like Bimco, DCSA, and FIATA aligning their standards to the UN/CEFACT Multi-Modal Transport Reference Data Model, which provides clear definitions of the data elements needed.

Purchase orders, meanwhile, remain largely unharmonised, with the DSI analysis finding that fewer than 200,000 companies worldwide utilise industry standards published by GS1 EANCOM and XML.

The absence of consistent, machine-readable data elements across these documents leads to multiple issues.

It affects the speed and reliability of transactions, creates barriers to entry for smaller players, and ultimately reduces the overall competitiveness of global trade operations. The transition to a fully digitalised trade framework is reliant on eliminating these disparities and fostering an environment where interoperability is the norm, not the exception.

The DSI is now calling for standards development organisations to ensure that their deliverables include data definitions that are semantically interoperable with those of others. It also recommends that industry and private sector actors implement globally recognised standards where they exist, adding that “a comprehensive digital transformation cannot occur unless all major links in the value chain collaborate”.

The KTDDE working group says it invites participants in the trade ecosystem to road-test its recommendations and provide feedback.

By the first quarter of next year, the group will deliver an analysis of the final batch of 16 key trade documents, before launching an interactive online tool that maps data and standards for the end-to-end supply chain.


Kindly supplied by Global Trade Review


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