Consultant: Steamship underinvesting in IT

A firm presented a draft report detailing improvements that are expected to take two years to develop. 

The SSA is running on some outdated tech. —MV Times

A consultant is telling the Steamship Authority (SSA) that it will need to make changes to its “outdated” information technology (IT) infrastructure, and sooner rather than later. 

During a joint meeting between the SSA board and the Port Council on Tuesday, Dec. 12, Thomas Innis from Gibbous, a firm tapped to review the authority’s IT infrastructure, showed there were various areas of improvement that were needed in a new draft report. 

The review process began in June, and Innis said he was impressed with what the SSA’s technology team has been able to maintain over the past 20 years. 

“At the same time … you’re at a point where you must change, you must transform,” he said. “You have a technology debt … basically, because of the strength of the team, you’ve been able to get away with an underinvestment in technology.” 

The presentation showed that while the SSA’s spending on IT is comparable to the rest of the transportation industry, it has not been incorporated into capital planning. Innis also said this was an opportunity for the SSA to review how it is contracting with its vendors, and to develop a strategy for improvements. Up to now, Innis said, the SSA had been “reactive” when making technology decisions. 

One of the critical and central parts that needed updating was the reservation system, which was originally built in 1997. Innis said since the current vendor for the system is planning to retire, there is a “new urgency” to find a replacement. 

Additionally, the SSA’s technology has had an “organic growth” around the reservation system, which Innis said was built with “outdated” programming language. Similarly, the SSA uses a mixture of old and new hardware. Additionally, there are other members of the technology team nearing retirement. 

“You’re now at an inflection point,” he said.

Also, simplifying the web of systems surrounding reservations into “one system” would help, which could also incorporate the new, $3 million SSA website under development. 

Innis said customers want real-time communications from the SSA. They also want flexibility and certainty in their trips aboard ferries. Customers have expressed discontent over empty deck space on the ferries before. Considering the SSA doesn’t have the luxury to develop a big parking lot to meet these demands, like other ferry services, the SSA will need to invest in its technology to better meet customer needs. 

Innis laid out several options the SSA could take to accomplish improving its systems, ranging from “quick wins” — like enhancing internal communications — to longer-term steps of varying degrees of difficulty. Innis suggested bridging the old system — replacing the reservation system and building improved functionality — in the interim, while a better system is developed. Innis also suggested adding some additional personnel to the technology team who weren’t developers, such as a business analyst, to get a full picture of the authority’s needs. 

Overhauling the SSA’s information technology is expected to take a couple of years; Innis also recommended a six-month planning process.

SSA officials had their concerns. When SSA board Falmouth representative Peter Jeffrey asked about the costs associated with updating the systems while also recruiting personnel, Innis responded that the planning process would be the time for the Steamship to gather more information about costs; they could compare quotes from a request for proposals. Another possibility was adding a chief information officer to the SSA administration. 

When Port Council Vineyard Haven representative John Cahill asked who owned the reservations system, SSA general manager Robert Davis said the source code — the commands to execute a computer program — belonged to Saber Tech. Davis said the authority would need to speak with the individual running Saber Tech about whether the SSA would want to buy the source code outright. Davis said the SSA had spoken with Saber Tech about helping in the transition, although there is nothing finalized. 

“We have a guy, one guy … who owns the reservation system?” Cahill asked. “That sits in a basement of the Steamship Authority?”

Davis clarified the individual owned the software, and it is in an SSA server room.

“Just absorb that,” Cahill said. “That’s a big risk.”

Davis said an agreement made it so the SSA would gain the rights to the source code if something happened to the vendor. 

Innis did say there were other vendors that could be considered, 

SSA officials will meet again with Innis in January. 

In other news, the new website will be launching after the summertime reservations in January are done, to avoid complications. 

Some board members pushed at representatives of Stellar Elements, the firm tasked with making the new website, on why it was taking so long, and about the costs. The firm’s representatives pointed to unexpected differences between the initial request and the work that needed to be done as one of the reasons. 

Jeffrey called for a review of who project managers were in the SSA for future projects. “It’s costing us way too much, and each opportunity cost impacts our ability for a vessel replacement,” he said.


  1. For starters, there should be dynamic pricing (with large discounts for year-rounders, of course). There’s no reason that a last-minute purchase for July 4th weekend should be the same price as a midweek purchase for an offweek. Or that a 5 PM departure should cost the same as a 9 PM departure.

    Keeping a few last-minute tickets available for peak travel days will fetch hundreds of dollars…and allow lower prices but also more availability — and create a cross-subsidy from the ultrarich to the rest of us.

  2. Slapping my head. This technology assessment was completed AFTER the start on the new website? Which means that when not if (unless the SSA wants to remain in the (proverbial) age of dial-up internet access) the website is completed it will have to be redone to integrate the improved technology and more money will be needlessly thrown at another fix.How can this organization operate as it is currently staffed and who is leading it? Oh – and why does the WiFi still not work on the ferry??

      • Inasmuch as working Wi-Fi keeps people’s eyes on their devices and their butts in their seats, rather than wandering around the ferry finding ways to create hazards, yes. The boats have Wi-Fi to improve safety.

        • Was there a lot of injuries on the boat before wi-fi? I’ve only been riding them since 1984, so I may have missed them

  3. $2M committed to a new website and the reservation system wasn’t addressed? Please tell me how this SSA “leadership” stays in charge?

    • They stay in charge because of the voters who voted for the County Commissioners.
      We the people own the SSA, we control it by voting for County Commissioners.
      We know where the blame lies, we won’t admit it.

  4. I am disheartened, not surprised, by the SSA’s lagging so far behind in IT. The SSA is not alone in being “reactive”, rather than “proactive” in this realm. But there have been so many complaints and suggestions concerning their reservation program, for starters, that it’s too bad this very important facet of the company could not have been tackled with more alacrity, sooner. Why is there so much enthusiasm to spend money on the Taj Ticket Office Mahal and its many iterations and so little when it comes to what makes the SSA run? Mr. Davis, you have a lot to answer for; hopefully someone will ask you the questions.

  5. Out of curiosity, has anyone realized that the SSA could probably use a clone of an airline’s reservation website? Wouldn’t be all that different, just much smaller I’d think.

  6. Yes, Tom, and given ginormous fine handed to Southwest for their massive screwups last year, best not to clone their system! OTOH, should there be penalties for non-performance by the SSA?

    • The fines for Southwest came from the owners of Southwest.
      Sara Crafts is one of the owners of the SSA, how much should Sara pay? Who should Sara pay?

      • Albert, thanks for your concern on my behalf. (1) Southwest Airlines is paying some of its passengers who were “inconvenienced” during last year’s debacle through the fine already levied by the feds. (2) Lemme say that the SSA rarely consults me about any of its problems, even though I offer suggestions. I don’t feel like an owner at all. The SSA has lots of money as far as we can tell by its overspending on virtually everything it initiates: the Taj Mahal, the boats, and most particularly the reservation system. Surely some of that can be utilized for refunds at the very least for people who are
        “inconvenienced”. Let’s leave Spirit to drown in its own morass.

Comments are closed.