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Holding spreadsheets to account

By Steve McCann

Imagine for a moment you’ve made a mistake while filling out a spreadsheet. No biggie, human error happens all the time. Besides, that’s why they made the backspace key, right? Well, what if your mistake caused an estimated 125,000 Covid-19 infections, and resulted in about 1,500 deaths? This isn’t fiction. This is exactly what happened in England, and is a lesson learned the hard way in the crucial importance of tracking and reporting data.

Details about the scandal emerged in autumn of last year. Nearly 16,000 positive Covid-19 cases disappeared without a trace from the UK’s contact tracing system. That’s 16 thousand people who had no idea they had Covid, going about their lives encountering other people. It’s estimated 1,500 of those people ended up dying.

The culprit? Microsoft Excel. It ran out of numbers. Seriously. It sounds like a Y2K moment, but it actually happened. In essence, there are two versions of Microsoft Excel. The new version, and the old. Unlike the new version, the old Excel is limited to 64,000 rows. Unfortunately, someone entered this data on the old Excel, and 16 thousand data entries went missing after passing the 64,000-row threshold. The person entering the data was likely none the wiser.

That’s not to say Microsoft Excel is a bad program. It’s fine if you’re doing payroll, but it’s a grim reminder that a computer program built for accountants isn’t really equipped to handle things like global pandemics. For instance, did you know Excel has an autocorrect feature? Let’s say you enter an international phone number. The leading zeroes get removed. Or maybe you’re punching in a serial number, Excel starts rounding up after so many digits.

A forensic audit of Enron’s bookkeeping revealed a quarter of the company’s spreadsheets contained an error. About 20 per cent of genetics papers have errors caused by Excel. On average, if a single mistake made in Excel goes undetected, it results in more than 750 errors.

This whole debacle is also a crash course in what it takes to bring a pandemic under control. Tracking and accounting public health data is just as important as masks and vaccines. Tracing outbreaks was imperative in the fight against Smallpox and Polio. Now, it’s pivotal in the pandemic we’re in and hopefully a vital lesson for the next pandemic.


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