News Article 01/06/2000 A

Keeping Safety Simple

01/06/2000 - Compuship

Ulysses Systems won the Ocean Voice award for innovation in maritime IT and communication as well as the Seatrade 2000 award for Innovation. We talk to Dr Nikos Mikelis

ISM and simple are not words that go together in many people's hearts. ISM (International Safety Management) is a horrendously complex system of safety audits, which forces seafarers worldwide to keep and manage enormous amounts of documentation.

There must be documentation to explain what seafarers need to do at every stage of a voyage in order to ensure safety. Checklists recording all the relevant tasks have been done must be countersigned by someone in authority. People need to leave notes, messages and amendments in order to ensure that seafarers can take advantage of each other's experiences.

Numerous manuals and texts must be kept and updated. Communication tools must be in place, ensuring that shipping companies can pass safety messages down from head office to all the seafarers that need to read it. And people thought they could do all this on paper?

Ulysses has built a sophisticated filing system that can do everything on a computer. It might not sound like the most glamorous computer application, but it works and it saves a great deal of time. The system is installed on a number of vessels operated by about 15 companies, and the company recently signed up V.Ships and KOTC as additional clients.

Ulysses received the Ocean Voice award for innovation in maritime IT and communication at the CITIS (communications and IT in shipping) conference on March 31, 2000. Judges included David Patraiko of the Nautical Institute; Patrick Slesinger of Wallem Shipmanagement; Frank August of Inmarsat; Intertanko and the International Shipmanager's Association. Ulysses claims to be the first company to have created a fully electronic ISM system. It is fully certified to ISO 9002.

Ulysses is selling the system "as is", although shipping companies are of course free to create their own structure for the system. The manuals are provided in the system, but according to Ulysses, the first thing a company normally does is to delete these manuals and put in its own.

Ulysses developed the system in close co-operation with Lyras Shipping, which is based in London and owns and operates four vessels.

Finding the right information

The Ulysses system is built around the different safety information needs of different crewmembers. To keep things simple and manageable, each crewmember is only given pointers to the safety information he needs, so that he does not have to search through the entire database.

For example, a cook might need to know safety information about the galley and general safety information about the ship. A third engineer might need safety information about the engine and general safety information. The captain would obviously need access to all the documentation.

The system is designed to provide each crewmember with ready access to the information he or she needs. When the crewmember logs on, the system provides onscreen links to all the information relevant to that person's position. This makes finding the necessary information much quicker and simpler.

All of the information can also be perused in a structured way. For example, if any crewmember needs to find safety information relevant to the anchor, this is all easy to dig out and find.

The important point is that a filing system on a computer is arbitrary. Unlike a paper filing system, where the piece of paper is physically located in a physical file, a computer file is not actually located in any specific folder, just on a disk somewhere. The filing structure with Microsoft Windows is arbitrary, pointing to different files on the disk. It is perfectly possible to have two filing systems at the same time, each filing the same documents.

For example, each document can be filed in a reference directory, with all the information in one place, so a seafarer can go and find out everything he might need to know about engine parts. But at the same time, the information flow can be live, with the same document existing as a message to all of the other chief engineers on vessels with the same company, or in a filing system for everything a chief engineer needs to read at the beginning of a voyage.

However, the seafarers do not have to concern themselves with the filing. For example, if a vessel loses two anchors in one summer and the captain wants to leave a note about it, he needs only indicate that the message should be read by all new captains or by any crewmember who wants to know more about anchors. From there on, the system takes care of the filing.

Documents can be supplemented with image files, hyperlinks to other documents and even videos; the system can be set up so that large files can only be sent with the captain's authorisation.

If more detailed information is required, the system provides references to print publications so that they can be found quickly.

Memos and communication

If the shipping company needs to leave a memo for certain crewmembers, the company specifies who needs to see the memo. For example, it might need to be seen by the captain and all of the engineers, but no one else. So, when all of these people next log into the system, they are told that they have a message waiting.

When creating a memo, the shipping company can stipulate whether it should be stored on the system forever, if it should be stored for a year, or if it is just relevant to the specific voyage or even only needs to be read and then forgotten. If it should be stored, for example, if it gives a piece of knowledge relevant to a specific port, it is also filed under that port, so it can be read next time the vessel goes into the port.

For example, one chief engineer might want to leave a note about a problem with the engine on a specific vessel. The chief engineer can indicate that the note should be read by every new chief engineer, the first time they join the vessel. The message can also be filed under "vessel engine," for any engineer to peruse if he needs the reference material.

If the vessel has trouble with a certain inspector in a certain port, a memo about this can be left in the system, filed under that port. The next time any vessel visits the port, they can go through all the memos and review them.

The system gradually builds up a knowledge base of information, because all of the memos and messages can be stored in different categories, and as a result, the system gradually becomes richer and richer.

Memos might not be permanent; they might only pertain to a specific voyage, for example if the captain wants to give safety-related advice to all of the crew about a drill. In this case, the memo is labelled 'voyage specific' and does not clutter up the database for future users.

Another example is new fixture information. A chartering manager on shore passes details of the next fixture from the charterer to the necessary people ashore and onboard the vessel. The information only needs to be stored for that specific voyage.

Seafarers can leave comments on what they need or make suggestions for change. These comments can then be reviewed by a quality manager, either on the vessel or on shore. If accepted, they can be permanently incorporated into the system on all of the vessels in the fleet.

A complete audit trail of changes and updates is always maintained by the computer system, and anybody can find out at any time who made which change, why it was made and when it was made.


Another aspect of ISM is the checklists that need to be kept, which guide each crewmember through all the complex procedures. There are procedures which cover the life of the voyage and procedures for maintaining the vessel, which might only last a few hours.

The seafarer has a list of tasks, all with a checkbox. The box is ticked when the task has been completed. This generates a document that can be provided to an ISM inspector, stating that a certain task has been completed.

With Ulysses, all of the checklists are electronic. The system automatically flags up to seafarers which checklist they need to fill in. When they have filled in the list, it is automatically forwarded to a supervising crewmember (if necessary) who can then review the check-list and verify that everything has been done as written.

Once documents have been counter-signed by someone in authority, it is not possible to change them.

Ship-shore communications

The package contains all the functionality necessary for ship-shore communications. All the messages which are sent from ship to shore, shore to ship and ship to other ships are compressed and put into a tight bundle to be transmitted at the least possible cost at a certain time every day.

The documents can be transmitted very cheaply, because the same software is running on all of the ships and in the office; very little data actually needs to be transmitted. So, it is quite possible to include the shore office on any memos that need to be circulated.

If large files are being transmitted, the seafarer can choose if they should be sent by e-mail; alternatively, they can be flagged to be put onto a disk and posted to the office next time the vessel calls into port.

There is a particularly sophisticated functionality for sending more complex documents, such as database forms. The database forms can be compiled onboard using standard software. However only the specific data is transmitted from ship to shore and not the (potentially) large document itself. Furthermore, the data, when it arrives ashore, can be downloaded into a database for further analysis such as plotting graphs and identifying trends.

Written for seafarers

Dr Nikos Mikelis, director of Lyras Shipping, who was closely involved in the development of the product, says that the company made an extreme effort to make the system as simple as possible for seafarers to use.

The system was thoroughly developed by shipping people, who had a great deal of knowledge about how things work on-board a vessel and how to make things simple for seafarers.

"The system is particularly popular with Indonesian crews," he continues. "They were the first to grasp it. The crewmembers train each other."

"We try to make the information jump at you, even if you don't know that it exists," he says. "The guy doesn't even know what forms to complete, he just fills in the form. Microsoft Word has over 600 buttons. We got rid of most of the buttons. You only have the ones you need."

The system has been designed around the specific problems in the maritime industry, namely that crew don't stay on the same ship for very long, they don't have much time and they probably don't have many computer skills. But there are consistent roles which different crewmembers fill.

Dr Mikelis maintains that the most important aspect of the system is the communication, not the manuals. "Manuals are the least important part of shipping," he says. "It's the forms and messages, all the live communication between ship
and office, and ship and ship, that ensure safety."

Dr Mikelis stresses that the system is designed to structure the information, not manage it. "We've not tried to replicate what SpecTec does," he comments. "They deal with processes. The only thing we are dealing with is the information structure."