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Spring 2003
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In the Netherlands, Dynamic Mapping System Shows Real-Time Shipping Flow

Monitoring the Port of Rotterdam With GIS

  the central control space
The central control space of the Municipal Port Authority of Rotterdam (GHR) bears a resemblance to the space control centers of ESA or NASA. (photos courtesy of the Port Authority of Rotterdam)

When you enter the central control space of the Municipal Port Authority of Rotterdam (GHR) in the Netherlands, you might imagine yourself in one of the space control centers of the European Space Agency (ESA) or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The port area is visible on two large video screens--one displaying a contour map of an area approximately 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide and the other presenting an offshore zone stretching almost 60 kilometers into the North Sea. This Dynamic Port Map system shows the real-time shipping flow to help the port staff do its job. A large number of dots and crosses in various colors can be seen on the map, each of them with an arrow. The color coding provides information on the kinds of ships, the arrows indicate the direction of navigation of each ship, and each dot has a name.

The video walls are installed in the GHR's new office in the World Port Center at the Kop van Zuid situated in the center of the city of Rotterdam. The objective of this traffic control modernization is to further strengthen the competitive position of the port.

"Services provided in the port must be fast, safe, cost-effective, reliable, and environmentally friendly," says Rob Slegterhorst, acting as project leader of the Dynamic Port Map project. "We put GIS into action to achieve a free flow of the ships in the port." The GIS application is based on MapObjects software from Esri.

Besides the colorful maps, various kinds of data are visible on the screen--depending on the needs of the traffic controllers--varying from a small outline of the nautical basic particulars to administrative particulars or, if necessary, even live television broadcasts of national or regional television channels. When a traffic controller clicks on an object, a large number of administrative details of that particular ship can be fetched from the underlying Oracle database and presented on the screen. This basic information is used both by the GIS and an expert monitoring system based on the Cleverpath Aion technology of Computer Associates (Islandia, New York). This system proposes scenarios and possible actions based on a number of decision rules (e.g., which ships, based on their freight, need a closer inspection such as for consignment notes, freight, and whether they meet the transportation regulations or not).

Getting the Overall Picture

All shipping traffic information in the GHR area is displayed on the screen via links with a number of radar posts. An arriving ship must announce itself from its position at sea, after which a cross bearing will be performed from three points. This is to determine the starting position of the ship as well as its identity.

"In the old situation, the traffic controllers of the Port Control Center (HCC) worked with what I call synthetic radar images," Slegterhorst says. "For example, in order to follow a ship, they looked at an adjusted radar image from which the rotating radar beam had been removed and under which a contour map had been placed. However, this only provided a limited view of the situation. The only information available was the location, speed, and size of the ship. If a traffic controller wanted more details of the ship, then he or she had to look for these relevant details in the administrative system."

the video wall
The video wall in the Port Control Center (photos courtesy of the Port Authority of Rotterdam).

Shipping traffic guidance was divided into three sectors, each with its own traffic controller. "They passed the information of a ship on to each other," continues Slegterhorst. "But there was no place where all the information was brought together, so there was no complete overall picture of all the shipping traffic in the port."

An overall picture is not only relevant for improving ship movement in the port and enabling better planning for and utilization of the port's capacity, but it is also extremely important in case incidents occur. In case of harbor contingencies, GHR works with the fire and police departments, for example, in extinguishing a fire. Proper visualization of the port is an important way to improve the speed and quality of response. "In these situations, for example, it can be useful to present details on an aerial photograph," says Slegterhorst. "Previously, however, only the contour map was used as standard procedure."

The GHR now integrates two source systems through the Dynamic Port Map--the synthetic radar images and the administrative data in Oracle, which contains a large amount of data.

"What is different now is that we are able to present details on a map that are actually relevant to a normal situation. This results in a more complete view of the port, with only the mooring and sailing ships including their names and direction of navigation. This will be the same picture as the one we are showing on the video wall," Slegterhorst adds.

In Emergencies

In addition, this same application is also installed at the individual workstations of HCC staff members. They can zoom in on any area of the port to draw up a contingency plan. Also, in case of an incident, they can immediately zoom in on the area of the incident. An important advantage of the new approach is that both the police and fire departments have a central operations room in the same place where HCC is situated, so that everyone can look at the same data and presentation. This will prevent a lot of communication problems.

If HCC staff members want additional information--which is the main objective of the Dynamic Port Map--then there are two ways they can obtain it. First, some data from the system can be presented geographically on the basic map, although not all data at this time. It is also possible to access the map's administrative Oracle data in an attribute or information table that can then be presented together with the map.

According to Slegterhorst, "An important advantage of this environment, which was developed using MapObjects, is its capability to add extra functionality based on Visual Basic. GHR makes use of MapObjects software's standard library. A set of scripts enables users to fetch administrative data by simulating manual actions that the user would otherwise perform to obtain the data."

Free-flowing traffic is important for the port, but safety and environmental friendliness are perhaps even more important. Those ships having dangerous cargo on board especially can be sure they will receive the necessary attention.

Slegterhorst explains, "We use more than one system to find out what we have to inspect. The first is the administrative system, in which the data of the cargo, among other information, is recorded: where to find what? This will be recorded on the map using color coding. This, of course, is a very intuitive way of working. Where a concentration of light blue dots is indicated on the map, we know there are a large number of tankers. We then can fetch the data on the exact freight from the administrative system." The port also uses the Computer Associates' expert monitoring system, which proposes courses of action for the inspections based on a set of decision rules. Staff can check whether or not a ship must get a pilot on board and whether there are restrictions placed on the location where the ship is allowed to moor. Both the GIS and the monitoring system make use of the same underlying database.

In the near future when all ships have a GPS on board, almost all data concerning the ship and freight, as well as its direction and speed, will be available automatically. The input, both administrative as well as that for the video wall, will occur only once. Then binoculars, which are now still used in the control center, could well be stored away forever.

A version of this article appeared in Vi Matrix, the Dutch GIS magazine, Volume 10, June 2002. For more information, contact Jan Willem van Eck, Esri Nederland B.V. (tel.: 31-10-217-0745, e-mail:, Web:

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