Ships moving in and out of port create waves in the water — and ripples in your wallet.

How ship traffic and costs fit together intrigues Michael Haughton, a professor who recently teamed up with Communitech’s DATA.BASE program. Haughton specializes in operations and decision sciences — the thought that goes into transporting large amounts of stuff — at the School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University.

People tend to regard shipping by land and sea as a sluggish process involving hefty containers and cranes cutting slow arcs over salty harbours. In fact, says Haughton, getting such things as fresh fruit from South Africa to grocers in Waterloo Region requires watch-like precision along a lengthy supply chain.

“Many people have to do things just right so that I can enjoy the things I take for granted,” he says.

DATA.BASE wants to refine “big data” — the massive quantities of raw digital information generated daily by people and machines — into useful products.

Haughton and three researchers will focus on ships sailing in and out of Vancouver, Prince Rupert, B.C. and Ningbo, China. The team will use data from ship movements to examine turn-around time — the gap between when a ship enters port and when it leaves.

“When you’re sitting in port, you’re not making money,” Haughton says.

Delays add costs to the shipping industry, and the effect works its way down to the prices of goods consumers push through checkout aisles. “We all feel it, no matter what,” Haughton says.

Ports can gather information and report average turn-around times, but time-conscious shippers want something with sharper definition.

Haughton’s team will build statistical baselines, the platforms on which mathematical models can be run to troubleshoot ship handling in port. Those models might point out efficiencies to be gained by adding berths in the harbour, or changing the way they are laid out.

To reduce “dwell time” — the time a piece of cargo sits in port — modelling could suggest improvements in the co-ordination of trucks and cranes involved in loading or unloading.

Moorage revenue goes up when a port earns a reputation for efficiency, Haughton says. Ultimately, consumers benefit.

“I’ve always been fascinated with transportation — how stuff moves from miles and miles away,” he says. “It wasn’t here yesterday. It was somewhere else.”