The BBC reports that British bureaucrats “lost” data on thousands of COVID-19 cases due to using the wrong file format.
The badly thought-out use of Microsoft’s Excel software was the reason nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in England.
And it appears that Public Health England (PHE) was to blame, rather than a third-party contractor.
The issue was caused by the way the agency brought together logs produced by commercial firms paid to analyse swab tests of the public, to discover who has the virus.
They filed their results in the form of text-based lists – known as CSV files – without issue.
PHE had set up an automatic process to pull this data together into Excel templates so that it could then be uploaded to a central system and made available to the NHS Test and Trace team, as well as other government computer dashboards.
As a consequence, each template could handle only about 65,000 rows of data rather than the one million-plus rows that Excel is actually capable of.
And since each test result created several rows of data, in practice it meant that each template was limited to about 1,400 cases.
When that total was reached, further cases were simply left off.
For a bit of context, Excel’s XLS file format dates back to 1987. It was superseded by XLSX in 2007. Had this been used, it would have handled 16 times the number of cases.
At the very least, that would have prevented the error from happening until testing levels were significantly higher than they are today.
But one expert suggested that even a high-school computing student would know that better alternatives exist.
“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge.
“And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do.
“But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”
There’s more at the link.
Tell me again how Big Brother is on our side, and looking out for us, and has our best interests in mind?
I wonder how many similar errors were made by government bureaucracies all over the world in the panicked rush to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? Were some of the thousands of deaths of elderly residents in New York nursing homes caused by bureaucrats who crunched the wrong numbers, and concluded that was the safest place for them to be isolated from outside risks of infection – while another set of bureaucrats crunched a different set of numbers, and decided that the best place for elderly people already infected with, and (hopefully) recovering from, COVID-19 was inside those same nursing homes? We all know the result – but why did it happen? How much of it was due to bureaucratic miscalculation?
Bureaucrats. Data. Some assembly required. Some errors expected.