ImportGenius: The Disruptive Shipping Database

What if you could monitor the goods and raw materials that any company imports the day it crosses customs? At first glance ImportGenius, a startup out of Arizona, doesn’t sound particularly exciting: It’s a website that tracks the import/export activity at America’s shipping docks. But according to ImportGenius’s Managing Director Ryan Petersen, this is the first service of its kind, and one that has no shortage of potential applications.

Every shipping vessel that enters and leaves the United States is required to submit shipping records that document its cargo. Most of these documents are a matter of public record – you could look up the information yourself if you wanted to. But there are millions of such documents submitted each year, with no searchable index, making the data practically useless.

Until now. ImportGenius has licensed import/export data form a number of sources (along with free sources like US Customs), which is added to a database that is updated daily. For a monthly fee ($99 for standard access, $250 for premium) users can search through the data, allowing them to identify criteria including the class of cargo, the company involved, and the point of origin.

When the site first launched six months ago, ImportGenius was primarily a tool for small importer/exporters that wanted to see what their competitors were up to. Rival companies could keep tabs on which factories were being used, or how much demand there was for a given product. While this market has taken off, there are a number of other possible (and more exciting) uses for the data.

Earlier this week ImportGenius analyzed Apple’s current shipping records to deduce that unusually large shipments of “electronic computers” (a classification that Apple has never used) have been arriving this spring. This isn’t exactly surprising, but it serves to make a good point: No matter how secretive a company is about its products, it still has to keep accurate shipping records.

Stock analysts have been keeping a close eye on the data – if they can establish a trend between revenues and imports, they could potentially evaluate a company’s earnings long before its quarterly press release (which could obviously turn the stock market on its head). Other companies have been using it to enforce copyright protection. Rather than simply attacking a criminal merchant of counterfeit goods, these companies can hunt down the factory where the goods originated. The data has also been used in a number of lawsuits.

We should note that this kind of data isn’t going to be useful for security purposes – the US Customs office has invested in a $15 Billion tracking system that (hopefully) leaves this one in the dust.