International Trade and Transportation: Data Issues and Challenges
International trade and transportation data are important to government and private sectors alike. These data are used for many purposes, including security analyses, trade corridor studies, transportation infrastructure planning, and marketing and logistics plans, to cite a few.
In the United States, multiple agencies are involved in the collection, processing, and dissemination of international trade and transportation data. No one dataset provides all information requirements needed by the transportation community and multiple sources were used for this report. The integration of these different data sources helps provide a more complete picture of U.S. international trade and transportation flows and trends. Several challenges arise when using multiple data sources, including variations in accuracy, reliability, time series, and data field definitions.
Merchandise Trade Statistics
The transportation community relies on merchandise trade statistics to perform a wide variety of multimodal transportation and trade data analyses. U.S. merchandise trade statistics are processed and released by the U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division. Census-based merchandise trade data are captured as a result of international trade filing requirements of the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury, and primarily reflect information filed by shippers or their representatives rather than carriers. The U.S. Customs Service collects these documents at the port of entry or exit unless the information is filed electronically using the Automated Broker Interface (ABI) on imports or the Automated Export System (AES) on exports.
The Census Bureau releases overall merchandise trade and transportation statistics that include data elements on value, commodity, weight, country of origin and destination, U.S. port, and so forth. Other agencies obtain special extractions and tabulations from the Census Bureau, and then perform additional quality assurance reviews and analyses for their own purposes and to meet the needs of their own customers. These include: North American land trade data (released to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and disseminated as the Transborder Surface Freight Data); U.S. international maritime trade data (released to the Maritime Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and disseminated in multiple formats); U.S. transportation-related goods data and overall trade data (released to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and disseminated in multiple formats, including balance of payments information).
Several challenges exist with Census-based merchandise trade statistics. Specifically, the absence of actual shipping weight measurements for surface exports is a critical problem in U.S. international trade data. Weight data are currently only collected for imports, due to the reporting requirements of the Census Bureau and the U.S. Customs Service.
Another key issue is acquiring reliable data on the domestic origin and destination of international trade. Origin-destination data may not always be reported correctly for a number of reasons. For example, Census requires the reporting of the state of origin for U.S. export shipments, which is supposed to be the physical location of origin for the export shipments. Reporting errors can occur, as intermediaries (e.g., freight forwarders or logistics providers) often complete the documentation for a particular shipment, and may not know the physical flow and geography of the goods. These intermediaries sometimes list their headquarters location as the point of origin or specify the location of the port of exit, which is not always where the goods began their journey. This occurs most frequently for data covering exports of farm products, minerals, and other bulk commodities.
Another key data gap in Census-based merchandise trade statistics is the lack of intermodal data. Internationally traded goods are commonly transported by more than one mode from origin to final destination. In merchandise trade statistics, the export mode of transportation is defined as the mode used when the U.S. international border is crossed. On the import side, the mode of transportation is defined as the last mode used when the freight was transported to the U.S. port of clearance or entry. Because of these reporting requirements, merchandise trade statistics do not distinguish goods moved by intermodal combinations.
Yet another challenge with Census-based merchandise trade statistics is the accuracy of port statistics and the inability to identify the actual port or physical infrastructure of entry or exit. In some cases, the reported port is the customs district and port of duty filing, not the physical location of the port of entry or exit as defined in the regulation requirements. Electronic filing has increased the number of administrative port filings, thus reducing the ability to accurately ascertain where goods are physically entering and exiting the United States
Other Trade and Transportation Sources
Special studies, as well as other carrier-based sources, supplement Census-based merchandise trade statistics. These include: the BTS Office of Airline Information (OAI), the Journal of Commerces Port Import Export Reporting Service (PIERS), and others. OAI air freight data is based on regulatory filing requirements for market and financial data from U.S. and foreign carriers operating in the United States. The PIERS database provides maritime trade statistics, based on information collected from vessel manifests, for maritime cargo entering and exiting the United States. Each of these sources, as with Census-based trade statistics, has its own gaps and limitations, and must be adequately assessed when linking multiple sources for analysis.
New Initiatives in International Trade and Transportation Data
Despite these limitations, strides are being made to improve future trade and transportation data. The U.S. Customs Service, in partnership with other federal agencies, is currently working to modernize its entire data-collection system through the development of the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE). This will replace the Automated Commercial System (ACS), which is comprised of the ABI and AES. Once in place, the new ACE system should increase functionality, streamline processes, and generate significant government and trade benefits. The goal of the ACE is to reduce processing loads, lower operating expenses, and focus efforts on risk analysis.
In conjunction with the ACE, the International Trade Data System (ITDS)-a federal information technology initiative led by the U.S. Customs Service-seeks to provide an integrated, governmentwide system for the electronic collection, use, and dissemination of both shipper- and carrier-based international trade and transportation data. An expected benefit will be more timely data availability. Federal operational and statistical agencies may have near real-time access to filings, which could shorten the overall time it takes to release reports and data. In addition, the ITDS will provide a broader set of more accurate data elements, because information will now be filed electronically by both shippers and carriers and then linked by a unique shipment identifier.