The UPR and Project NEXT

By: Giancarlo Gonzalez

In 2015, the Puerto Rico Comptroller’s Office published a report about how the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) misspent $ 80 million dollars on a technology system that didn’t do what it was supposed to. The subsequent story on how the problem was fixed with the implementation of NEXT, an opensource, modular platform developed by the faculty and students of the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus (UPRM), was never told. This is the story on Project NEXT, how it underpinned the entire “Student Services” operations and the tragic events that led to its demise.

Background

In 2000, the UPR awarded a contract to Oracle for licensing and services for the implementation of the Administrative Information System based on the E-Business Suite (EBS) product. Between 2000 and 2004, unsuccessful attempts and disagreements with the contract led to no progress being made in this implementation.

In 2004, the UPR also hired the Exeter company to do a GAP Analysis and estimate the time and cost to implement EBS throughout the University, including the Oracle Student System (OSS). By then, there was a doubt as to the ability of OSS to meet the needs of the institution. That same year, Oracle acquired PeopleSoft, which had a much more robust product. This cast further doubt on the long-term feasibility of OSS.  It didn’t take long for Oracle to announce the discontinuity of OSS, making it logical to think that this was not the best alternative. However, Exeter convinced the University to continue with its implementation even though it was a discontinued product.

First attempt of NEXT

At the end of 2006, the UPR-M proposed to the then Steering Committee of the Project, to consider the implementation of the Student System based on the Collegiate Portal and its RUM Extensible Architecture (REA), an open-source platform developed by UPR-M faculty and students.  The proposal was rejected.

During that time, six amendments were made to the contract with Exeter between 2005 and 2009, adding a cost of $ 19M. In addition to $ 17M between 2000 and 2009 for Oracle, for licensing and maintenance services. This for a total of $ 36 million in 9 years.  Exeter was finally shown the door in 2009 after having failed in the delivery of a working product under the already bloated budget.  They left without having completed the OSS implementation in its entirety.  A dialogue about other alternatives once again took hold.

Second attempt of NEXT 

In 2010, conversations reignited on using the technology developed in Mayagüez. The Campus made its proposal and in 2011 a Certification 7 was issued, which paved the way for hiring a local UPR team to work on what became the NEXT Project.

NEXT’s work plan was based on internal knowledge of the Institution’s limited capacity to adapt and execute changes in its core services; limitations known both by the project manager and his team. The project quickly began to be accepted as it proved to be effective and met the institutional requirements with precision.

What did NEXT Accomplish?

NEXT became the platform for managing UPR processes in the areas of Student Service, including Economic Assistance, Registrar, Admissions, and Payroll.

NEXT saved hundreds of thousands in licensing costs by being able to read live information from the Oracle Modules for General Ledger, Cash Management, Human Resources, and Labor Distribution.  This allowed for a lighter interface for users to see and review checkbooks to employees, generate checks that are printed from NEXT, execute the process of Time and Effort Report, see the basic information of employees, among others.

The platform allowed the Campus to develop better operational capacity, which made it easier to standardize and simplify processes in order to optimize resources. The architecture provided the ability to interact with the disparity of data providers, commercial agents and services. 

The system allowed for interaction with data and systems type RMS (VAX, OpenVMS) in real time. This capacity is extremely important because it facilitates the intercommunication between the applications developed in NEXT and the traditional systems (legacy) processes in which the University still operates, providing for a controlled and constant migration. 

In short, NEXT generated the type of results you’d expect both the Puerto Rico Government and the Fiscal Control Board to support and empower, instead of spending $200 million combined in consultants without local expertise and unable to take advantage of proven platforms capable of delivering results at scale.

Proven capabilities of NEXT

The value of NEXT for the University of Puerto Rico is in the tens of millions of dollars.   In the image below you can see the different NEXT applications, which read or write in Oracle’s legacy systems, but through a more user-friendly and less expensive interface.

Before NEXT, for General Ledger to connect to other systems, it was necessary to pay a license of $ 300k to provide the connector (or API for the acronym in English). With NEXT, the UPR developed its own API and created (among several others) a method that allows reading the balance of an account, viewing the requisition and posting an account.  

There are additional examples like this that if scaled to the entire Government, would amount to tens of millions in savings while having a core team of Puerto Ricans capable of iterating to improve modules or develop additional functionalities.

NEXT even reconciles with the UPR Banco Popular accounts registered in the E-Business Suite System, which allows for reconciling and canceling checks.  Did you lose a check?  You may void it through a NEXT module which then passes the information to the Oracle system and from there to the bank.

It is unfortunate to hear the constant complaints on behalf of the Fiscal Board because the Government does not give them the information they need, knowing firsthand what is possible. NEXT could have been the pilot of a financial control system for the entire government, developed by the UPRM.

Where is NEXT now?

On November 14, 2018, the UPR admissions process was opened using the NEXT platform for the third year in a row. However, to everyone’s surprise, the President of the University announced another “parallel” service called University One. Nobody had accounted for how this system was acquired and adopted.  Reports also came out of exposed confidential information on those who used it.

There is a well-known saying “those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat their mistakes”, but how can we excuse those who, knowing their history and mistakes, knowingly repeat them again?

By stopping the NEXT Project, in addition to discarding a project with a high technological production value from the University and for the University, it puts the Institution in a precarious situation without viable alternatives.

The Administration does not understand that this is not a problem of technology, but of the execution capacity of the institution, the politicization and the opportunism for those who only see the opportunity to enrich themselves regardless of the fulfillment of the institution’s goals.

It is unlikely that an external service can efficiently meet the specific requirements of the University. A new implementation will take time and effort that the Institution does not have, delaying perhaps decades of well-directed efforts with NEXT. The termination of the NEXT Project has dire consequences.

In her book “Entrepreneurial State” Mariana Mazzucato presents examples of how the Federal Government laid the foundations for the development of an innovation economy through projects such as DARPA (which created the Internet) and the opening of GPS technology (military army) which facilitated the development of applications such as Google Maps and Uber.

Mazzucato justifies the role of the State as a promoter of future innovations that will provide for economic growth. In Puerto Rico, there is still a long way to go in having a Government capable of developing open platforms capable of underpinning the innovation economy.

Thank you to the NEXT team for collaborating on this story!

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