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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

You, and technology onboard - whither goest thou?

How about this - if you have a gmail account, you will now be able to make free phone calls from your mobile phone number to any mobile phone number, anywhere in the world, for free if local and not more than 2 cents a minute for international. This may soon be available on any ship which has internet connectivity.
Will this increase or decrease your workload on the ship?
Or this - sitting on your computer, from anywhere, you can make a vast variety of Indian Government related payments - taxes, train tickets, car insurance, highway toll recharge, postal work, provident fund management, pension updates, the works. (Actually, correct that, anything but any payments related to our very own Directorate General of Sleeping, sorry, Shipping, and its Moribund, sorry, Mercantile Marine Department, where we still have to stand in lines at selected fixed times in dingy rooms with small windows to pray to the mini-gods behind the counters to be allowed the privilege of paying by demand draft or treasury challans in quadruplicate and talking to them.) So now also look forward to a time where instead of payments being made on behalf of the owners by agents, the ship can release funds directly to the authorities, and save on costs.
Will this increase or decrease your workload on the ship?
The more things change, the more there is a chance that some of us who feel that the door was shut after we got on, will try to freeze at some point in time or space. Our time was the best time. Any change or difference, even improvement, is viewed as an increase in workload.
But meanwhile, on a ship not too far away from you and me, things are evolving and changing even more rapidly. As an example:-
On the bridge you now have electronic ECDIS charts that are capable of being updated courtesy the internet and communications equipment that can handle most things automatically. Down below, in the engine control room, a variety of redundancies has taken care of much maintenance and possible equipment failures. As far as new-age technologies go, the shipping industry has been right there, ahead of the rest of the world, for centuries now - and that's a simple fact. Not the latest is the use of neural netoworking technology to help predict problems. Wait a bit more, and they will soon second guess your inner most thoughts, too. The technology already exists, it is just the cost and the resistance to change, both of which will be overcome ashore in due course.
What takes longer to change is the attitude of the man on board, and worse, the attitude of his ex-seafaring contemporaries ashore. One has encountered people in offices ashore who will not walk to a filing cabinet in the next room or open the data on their own computers, choosing instead to fire off one more email to the seafarer on board, content in his knowledge that mail from office is still treated with respect - and fear - on ships.
Which is also the biggest complaint onbboard ships against new technology. The loudest wail one hears is that all this technology causes more workload. This is like blaming the booze inside a bottle - instead of blaming the person who bought and drank it. The technology is waiting to be used, but many of us onboard will not do so or take the effort to master it  - and here's an example from the '70s when I was a cadet.
The company wanted copies of the log books for some voyages gone past, and we had a brand new photo-copying machine onboard, which in my unasked for opinion as a cadet was more than enough. However, the Master was of the opinion that since they had copied logbooks into logbooks in his days, the same needed to be done, and so it was done. Sitting in the same ship's office with a brand new photocopying machine, yours truly spent all his spare time copying the log book by hand. For weeks.
Went to the office a few months later, as it so happened I carried the old log books with me, and was asked why did I do it, why did I copy everything down by hand, they needed photo-copies.
Today all one hears is complaints about how people ashore, be they port, state, flag or company, keep demanding all sorts of information. There are those Masters and Chief Engineers who will make heavy weather of each request for information. And then there was this email from a batchmate, one of the better Masters at sea, if I may say so, with varied experience ashore, who said this:-
There is tsunami of paperwork and we have to accept - NO work is done without doing the paperwork, even when you visit the toilet. The problem regarding paperwork is because we compare them with our early days of command and due to total dependency of shore staff to feed them with all information. Infact I have now developed a checklist and reporting system, which if sent to me by masters from ship then I or even my wife can monitor ship's performance from my bedroom. So much spoon-feeding and uncalled for reporting which the inexperienced office staff wants is tremendous and most of incoming messages request for response ASAP, including yours, maybe. So, now a master is a glorified Head Clerk / PRO, who is expected to be sitting infront of the computer all the time during the Head Office working hours, otherwise there you get a phone call! Life is different onboard after ISM, after the "overriding authority" said to be given to master by companies and after company various departments depend on various reportings - daily/weekly/fortnightly/monthly/quarterly/Pre-Arrival Port/ In-Port Report/Departure Report/ etc and etc..... I can go on and on. I have the basic computer skills if not more, but can't tide over the paperwork tsunami very easily. But systems can be made and placed in position, if you learn to carry the shore staff with you.
That's the key phrase - at sea with all this technology at your disposal you are now no longer a ship far away - you are an extension of the commercial part of things. Which is the real truth - the ship is out there to make a profit for the stakeholders, and all the technology provided is supposed to assist you. Get used to it.
So either you learn to master it, or you move on, and make way for a generation of younger people who will do so. Luckily, there is a shortage, otherise can you imagine what would be the fate of Masters and Chief Engineers who have not bothered to upgrade their computer and technology as well as information gathering, dissemination and public relations/protocol skillsets?
It is high time that an infotech usage course, maybe a module teaching seafarers more than the usage of things like word and excel, was made part of the whole certification process.

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