Amazing New Trade Data

Wow. We really do live in the midst of a tidal wave of more detailed and interesting data.

The latest: importgenius.com, the brainchild of brothers Ryan and David Petersen, with Michael Kanko. They exploit customs reporting obligations and Freedom of Information requests to organize and publish — in real-time — the contents of every shipping container entering the United States.

There’s a neat ticker on the bottom of their page showing a trickle of these data. Watch it for a few minutes: it’s mesmerizing and provides a sometimes beautiful window into the wonders of international trade.

How might these data be useful to firms? Well here’s an example: On May 23, Ryan identified a spike in imports of a new type of device from Apple, leading him to (correctly) predict the arrival of the new iPhone. Apple’s secrecy throughout its supply chain is legendary, but not even Steve Jobs dares lie to U.S. customs.

Massive shipments of a new product code led to a pretty clear inference that something was up. I can only begin to imagine the business implications of data like this.

For instance, Samsung was still readying its new “Instinct” cellphone to compete with the (first-gen) iPhone, even as these data predicted that their real target should have been the (vastly improved) second-gen iPhone.

More generally: How will the forces of competition change now that firms can track shipment volumes of their suppliers, competitors, and customers? While more data can mean stronger competition, more information can also make it easier to enforce collusive agreements. Stay tuned, this will be interesting.

I can only imagine (and hope) that there are bright economists already thinking about how these new data can be used to fine tune our understanding of the dynamics of international trade.

See also TechCrunch on ImportGenius. It is no coincidence that I have to thank Ryan’s former econ professor, Ray Fisman, for the pointer, as Ray is no stranger to analyzing detailed trade data.

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  1. Michael says:

    Very fascinating…but is the new iPhone really “vastly improved”?

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  2. Wyatt says:

    Nothing like building an RSS feed to tell me everything my number one competitor is importing.

    I wonder if something like this will lead to a rise in ‘creative’ customs declarations. Say a proxy company to take that new shipment of 22,000 digital thingies that are then immediately sold to Apple and thus mitigating the chances of someone predicting the street date of their latest offering.

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  3. James says:

    Interesting concept. I wish there was some sort of free version to play with, though.

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  4. David says:

    @michael: Yes.

    @post: The arrival of the new iPhone was an open secret anyway, so I’m not sure how much ground this broke.

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  5. Kabir says:

    I used importgenius to get a good idea of why there was a backorder from all of my major suppliers (I am an online retailer). It was extremely helpful to see where crates of product were coming from and where they were in the supply chain.

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  6. Carl says:

    Hmmm, if that were truly the new iPhone, are they shipping raw product that’s not packaged yet? Because most rumor sites are still saying that the 2.0 firmware isn’t even finished yet. Also, why would they start shipping it in March for a product that wouldn’t be released until July? Not to mention the fact that they’d have to warehouse the product for 4 months?

    And I surely don’t think one would want to wait for product shipment data before they begin targeting a competitor.

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  7. jonathan says:

    Nice idea but your example is terrible. Everyone and their uncle expected a 3G iPhone at Apple’s WWDC. The shipment info was another piece of a widely believed rumor so if Samsung was stupid enough to think the first iPhone would be around forever I don’t see how this shipment info would have changed their minds. Or made any difference, given the lead times in making a phone versus the two to three weeks of new iPhone shipments and its announcements.

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  8. Nathan says:

    Beyond the econometric and business aspects, I wonder what (if any) are the uses for port security and customs enforcement. Of course, they’re running off information provided to the Customs Service, and there’s no guarantee that the data correlates to what is actually in the containers. Nevertheless, the realtime information stream has got to be useful to someone in the DHS or national security establishment. Is this another example of private business beating government to an application they already should have, or does the Customs Service organize the information in a similar way for their own uses?

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