Israeli start-up turns shipping data into policy-shaping information


Ship tracking does not sound particularly glamourous but Windward, a maritime “big data” start-up from Tel Aviv, is using it to answer some big, globally important questions.

“Most of us don’t think about the huge stakes at sea, but 90 per cent of the world’s trade is transported by vessels,” says Windward Marketing Vice President Michal Chafets. “So what ships are actually doing is hugely meaningful.”

According to the company, tracking vessels can provide accurate information on how much oil Iran is selling or whether fishermen are sticking to agreed quotas.

Windward was founded in 2010 by Israel Navy veterans, who sold their information to governments, and now advise commodity traders and hedge funds seeking an edge over their rivals. And the small start-up on Tel Aviv’s Har Sinai Street has attracted interest – and money – from serious investors including the Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and Angelic Ventures, owned by former Thomson Reuters CEO Thomas Glocer.

Ms Chafets illustrates her point with a recent example. When Western world powers signed the nuclear deal with Iran earlier this year , everyone wanted to know how much oil Iran had.

“Iran said it had none, which no one believed. Experts estimated it had anywhere from 10 million to 40 million barrels in floating storage. We saw there were 54 million barrels - because we understand ships.”

In an age of satellites, shipping data is relatively easy to access. But crucially, Windward offers analysis and interpretation of that data.

“If a ship is somewhere unusual, deviating from a pattern, or if it seems to be behaving in an uneconomic, and therefore suspicious, manner, we would flag that,” Ms Chafets explains. “We take all this data, corrupt and all, and clean out the manipulations using the Windward system. We organize the data into unique DNA for each vessel.”

Windward has access to over 200,000 large registered ocean-going vessels that constantly transmit their whereabouts. For the unregistered vessels – and Windward estimates that about 1 per cent of all ships on the sea are transmitting a false identity – the company can still offer analysis.

“At this point, if a large ship is not transmitting, it is in danger. Say I’m a Nato ship and I see a ship not transmitting; I will challenge it,” Ms Chafets says.

“Ships today are better off transmitting inaccurate data than not transmitting at all. The incentive is to sail legit.”

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