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Amazing New Trade Data

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

The latest:, 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.