Philadelphia water billing system on track: CIO

The city's computing head says the problems that have plagued the project are over

Two decades of efforts to replace Philadelphia’s aging water billing system could reach nearly US$47 million (NZ$65 million), including US$6.7 million for the fifth and current attempt to make the system work, according to the city’s controller.

The city “spent money for years for nothing. It doesn’t seem to me that water billing should be so complex,” says Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Last month, Butkovitz released a 29-page report that detailed the costs since 1987 of replacing the city’s inefficient 30-year-old custom-built Cobol mainframe billing system, which still relies on punch cards.

In addition to costs that have already exceeded US$35 million and could reach US$46.7 million, the report expressed concerns that the goal of having the project finished by early next year won’t be met.

In response, city CIO Terry Phillis said the current water billing project is on track and a month ahead of schedule.

Last January, Phillis detailed the current attempt to replace the old water billing system with commercial off-the-shelf software for water billing called Basis2 from Australian vendor Prophecy International. The city chose Prophecy after deciding to scrap most of the Oracle applications that it planned to use under a water billing system known as Project Ocean. Phillis put himself in charge of integration efforts with a team of contract workers and city agencies.

Project Ocean started in 2002, but work was suspended in October 2005 after the city spent US$18.9 million, twice more than it initially expected to, without getting a working system. The city signed an amendment to the Oracle contract in which Oracle agreed to pay or forgive costs of US$6.9 million to fund the revived Project Ocean, city officials said in January.

Last month, Phillis said the Prophecy software and related costs will total US$6.7 million, bringing the Project Ocean costs to the city to US$25.6 million. City Solicitor Romulo Diaz confirmed the $6.7 million cost, and said it includes about US$2 million to implement Prophecy. He also confirmed that the contract amendment with Oracle to forgive costs of US$6.9 million has gone forward, representing US$6.9 million in savings to the city. That amount includes the cost of Prophecy software, which is basically covered by Oracle, Diaz says.

The controller’s total cost of US$46.7 million includes years of work prior to 2002 when Project Ocean started, Phillis says. Between 1987 and 2002, the project scope changed and included other related projects such as a work order system, in addition to water billing, and an abandoned attempt to rewrite the current custom billing system on the mainframe. Project Ocean itself had gone through three iterations, he says.

“Drawing comparisons with the total water billing project cost [since 1987] and Project Ocean costs is a little squirrelly,” Phillis says. “The majority of the effort over the years was run by the finance department” and not the Mayor’s Office of Information Services, he says. Phillis joined the Mayor’s Office for Information Services in September 2006 and became full CIO in November 2007.

He is upbeat about the water billing project and says billings for 550,000 customers will begin going out with the new system on January 2, a month prior to the February 1 date anticipated earlier this year.

In May, a test of two water billing cycles for 60,000 bills was successfully completed on the Basis2 software.

Using a commercial off-the-shelf product has worked because it eliminates a custom approach that would “fail or be expensive”, he says. And that has required adjusting the business processes used for water billing, instead of keeping older legacy ones. In prior attempts, the water billing project also did not involve all the stakeholders who needed to be involved, he says.

“It’s almost been a fun project because we’re all working together,” he says.

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Tags managementproject oceanphiladelphiabasis2water billing system

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