Philadelphia and Oracle strike deal on stalled project

Oracle will pay for another vendor's utility billing software to get things moving

Philadelphia officials have announced the signing of an agreement in principle with Oracle to restart the suspended roll-out of a new water billing system called Project Ocean at no extra cost to the city (see Computerworld, August 21).

The amended contract between the city and Oracle calls for the installation of additional utility billing software from another vendor to augment the applications in the original version of the system, says city solicitor Romulo Diaz Jr.

“We’ll have the functionality that the city requires and be able to meet budget requirements,” Diaz says. City officials now expect the billing system to be up and running sometime next northern autumn, he says. That would be about three years later than the city had originally envisioned.

It wasn’t specified that Oracle would pick up the tab for the additional software. But outgoing Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff says the project is still expected to cost the city about US$18 million (NZ$28 million) — the same amount that was cited last month, when Neff said city officials were negotiating with Oracle in an attempt to revive Project Ocean.

Neff and other city officials wouldn’t identify the vendor of the new billing software, saying they want to wait until the amended contract is finalised. But Neff, who left her job in Philadelphia recently to do consulting on municipal wireless networks, says the software is a well-known product that the city has already evaluated and found to be workable. The vendor is one of Oracle’s recognised business partners, she says.

Neff also defended the system’s US$18 million price tag, which is about double what the city anticipated it would be when Project Ocean was conceived in 2003. Neff claimed that based on the industry average for a modern utility billing system, the cost of installing one that’s capable of serving Philadelphia’s 600,000 water customers could be expected to exceed US$32 million.

“We certainly hope the [agreement in principle] ends the political turmoil,” Neff says. “It has taken longer than hoped, but we’ve come up with a very good solution that allows us to move forward.”

She claims that the Mayor’s Office of Information Services took over Project Ocean when troubles developed and “got the full blame for problems, which was a little irritating”.

Neff stopped work last October on Project Ocean, which was designed to replace a 30-year-old custom-built billing system. Terry Phillis, who has been named Philadelphia’s acting CIO, says the suspension order will remain in place until the contract amendment is finalised, which is expected to occur within about two weeks.

Oracle officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. In August, a company spokeswoman said that Project Ocean was still in progress and that Oracle would deliver on its obligations to complete the applications roll-out.

Neff said last month that the problems with the software implementation stemmed from a combination of technical complexities, Oracle’s inexperience at building such a system, and the departures of several project managers and executive sponsors who were overseeing the deployment.

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