When End User Managed Applications cause critical errors

by Volker Weber

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A furious blame game is under way today after 16,000 coronavirus cases were missed due to a computer glitch - meaning thousands more potentially infected contacts were not traced. The extraordinary meltdown is believed to have been caused by an Excel spreadsheet containing lab results reaching its maxium size, and failing to update.

Some 15,841 cases between September 25 and October 2 were not uploaded to the government dashboard. As well as underestimating the scale of the outbreak in the UK, critically the details were not passed to contact tracers, meaning people exposed to the virus were not tracked down.

At some point you have to move data from a personal productivity tool into a serious database. Microsoft Excel spreadsheets can contain up to 16,384 (16 x 1024) columns and 1,048,576 (1024 x 1024) rows. You should no wait until you hit those numbers.

This is not human error, nor is it an Excel glitch. It's end user managed applications without developer support and proper testing. That is organizational failure, and a deadly one.

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Comments

Exactly. Thanks for the clear words.

Hubert Stettner, 2020-10-05

Nothing much has changed in six years. https://www.felienne.com/archives/3355

Jan-Piet Mens, 2020-10-05

My words exactly. We provide database solutions for higher education. When I speak to prospects, they often say "we already have a system in place that works just fine" (sic!). When I dig deeper, it usually turns out that their "system" is Excel.

They usually get back to us eventually, when they realise that Excel is not made for these purposes and has its limitations, when it comes to storing and managing data.

Axel Borschbach, 2020-10-05

Move to 64 bit Excel which removes this limitation. But your add-ins may not work... :(

Amy Blumenfield, 2020-10-05

I can't. Surface Pro X won't run it. :-/

Volker Weber, 2020-10-05

According to the BBC it's actually worse than that. They used the good old xls format, not the xlsx format. Or in other words, nowhere near 1M rows....

(source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-54423988)

Armin Grewe, 2020-10-05

So there were developers involved. Just really bad ones.

Volker Weber, 2020-10-05

Excel is a great tool for bound data, but not a good choice for unbound data.

https://www.thomashenson.com/bound-vs-unbound-data-in-real-time-analytics/

Kristian Raue, 2020-10-06

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I explain difficult concepts in simple ways. For free, and for money. Clue procurement and bullshit detection.

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