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Developing a new Dock Information System

This paper descr ibes the design, development, and early implementation efforts for a new computerized system to collect, organize, and transfer data pertaining to piers, wharves, docks and terminals (i.e. Navigational Point of Interest – NPI) in support of maritime transportation. This data has been collected and managed for over 80 years in the Corps’ Port Series Reports.

As the demand for more timely, detailed and accurate information relating to port facilities has grown in the past decade, the Corps has in turn revised its approach to data collection using a new, more dynamic and continuous system in the Master Docks Plus database. A web-based application that usesa three-tier architecture was developed to perform functions such as: 1) search for a dock, 2) view dock information, 3) update dock  information, 4) edit dock information, 5) save dock information, 6) transfer updated information to USACE, and 7) automatically receive regular updates from the USACE. This system was tested to evaluate the functionality of the application and also to gather users’ input to fine-tune the web application.

Introduction & background

The system described herein was developed in response to a recent initiative undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to update the methodology used to assemble and maintain timely and accurate data for the nation’s dock facilities. According to the Navigation Data Center (NDC), current methods for data collection use a combination of personal site inspection by qualified engineering personnel, direct interviews with terminal operators, and detailed reviews of port facility plans, charts, maps, aerial photography, directories, and other media [1].

While current methods yield highly accurate and detailed information at the time of collection, they also require a significant expenditure of the NDC’s time and resources. The process also takes several years to complete a single cycle of the total US inventory of dock facilities and their attributes. The growth in maritime commerce, and the resulting growth of ports to meet increasing demand, has led to a situation where the accuracy of information on dock facilities declines significantly over time after data have been collected and reported.

This information must be as current as possible if it is to be of significant use in transportation decision-making [1]. As a result, the Corps contracted with the University of Toledo’s Geographic Information Science and Applied Geographics (GISAG) Center to work toward developing a new process for collecting dock facility data that minimizes the need for site visits, reduces the time spent during a site visit, and assures more continuous data input into the Master Docks Plus (MDP) database. This effort also included a pilot program to collect data locally in the Toledo region, using the newly developed protocols in the area formerly known as Port Series 44.

Specifically, this project involves exploring a number of approaches to data collection that include geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing data acquisition, direct webbased data entry, and new ways for contacting and working with terminal operators in the data acquisition process. This paper’s focus is mainly on the web entry approach, where individual dock and terminal operators are given the opportunity to enter the data directly into the registry themselves without any intermediaries and with limited need for site visits by Corps personnel. The data collection/testing phase of this project emphasized this direct data entry approach by dock and terminal operators.

A significant portion of the project efforts dealt with the design of the data collection subsystem, as pre-collection activity is one of the most crucial steps in developing any data collection process [3, 4]. Furthermore, the design stage was devoted to developing a process utilizing current technology to minimize time and effort and to ensure that the data gathered are accurate and current [4]. The resulting system was a browser-based web application acting as an interface for collecting data (i.e., collecting new data or updating existing data). It also includes an exclusive interface to notify and pass the collected data to the USACE at the Navigation Data Center (NDC). All data collected are stored and managed at the Toledo site. Changes are transferred to the USACE NDC for acknowledgement and verification before the Master Docks Plus database is updated (see Figure 1). In addition, any updates made from sources other than the Toledo site to the NDC can be transferred back and incorporated to the maritime database residing at Toledo’s end. The website can then display filtered information presenting non-sensitive information to the general public regarding dock facilities; it also displays detailed information of a specific dock based on search criteria (e.g., state, city, commodity, etc.).

This web-based dock information system (DIS) application is an easy-to-use, secure, and efficient tool for the USACE to keep track of all the NPI (Navigation Points of Interest) and the periodic changes occurring in the dock information. The outcome of this pilot project, if proven to be successful, can be expanded to encompass all docks in the US. This prototype system is currently limited to implementation and testing in the Great Lakes region.


The development of this data collection system is geared toward devising a distributed system that is scalable, feasible, and sustainable. This section outlines the development process of the DIS system that uses a traditional life-cycle approach to identify, model, and document the data requirements. It also describes the application of a simple three-tired client-server type architecture that is a successful and popular approach to web application development [5]. Futthermore, it describes the web interfaces that use current web technology (Web 2.0), thereby providing flexibility in design, developing a rich user interface, and supporting different programming tools. Added to this system is the use of an ASP.Net framework to access and represent data in a secured fashion. Finally, the data are stored and managed using MS SQL Server, which resides on a data server hosted and managed by the University of Toledo. Five key processes are further discussed in the following sections regarding the design of the system. These include:

• Systems Life-cycle model
• Three-Tier architecture
• Web Development tool
• The Maritime Database
• Development of the Web Interface.

Life-Cycle In the development of a web application, the understanding of the business logic is vital, but so too is the planning of the associated technical activity [6]. Figure 2 illustrates the life-cycle model used for the development of this application.

The process of identifying Web Application Requirements is focused on the users and defines the nature of the information exchanged. Since this web application is designed for universal access, a process of identifying users’ requirements and the nature of their interaction with the database must be established. Two different types of users were identified, one being the general user who will have read-only access to the data. The other user type is the dock owners/operators who will have both read-only access to all the dock data and write access to their own dock facility data after valid authentication.

In the Application Design & Development, the structural view of the application is mapped to the data repository. The visual design, which is of great importance in any web application, is planned into a set of content-independent visual specifications. The navigational views are arranged into sets of access elements in the data repository.

Prototyping & Testing involves a simplified but complete version of the web application for users to have hands-on experience with the system. Feedback, comments, and suggestions are the key outcomes expected from users during this stage. Members of the project team maintain a log in their interactions with users (i.e., the dock owners and operators) to monitor the effectiveness of the system. In addition, system developers monitor for minor bugs and problems with the system and make the necessary repairs. This stage of the process was completed locally at the Port of Toledo.

Finally, Implementation & Maintenance enables the project team to replace the current version of the database with the most recent data obtained from the USACE Master Docks Plus database. From the Toledo end, data that are sent to the USACE NDC are used to update the Master Docks Plus database after the acknowledgement and verification process. In return, the USACE will periodically send the entire contents of the MDP database to Toledo for storage in the Great Lakes Maritime Research Information Clearinghouse (GLMRIC).

Samir Dhar, Research Technician, University of Toledo, Ohio, USA