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UK health officials use Excel XLS, lose Covid-19 statistics

From: Akira Urushibata
Subject: UK health officials use Excel XLS, lose Covid-19 statistics
Date: Wed, 14 Oct 2020 07:08:43 +0900 (added by address@hidden)

Excel: Why using Microsoft's tool caused Covid-19 results to be lost

  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.

  The problem is that PHE's own developers picked an old file format
  to do this - known as XLS.

  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.



Original Unix had many arbitrary limitations and often they were not
apparent.  One of the important goals professed by the GNU project
was to eliminate such limitations.  Outside GNU, many applications
have arbitrary limitations and users are often not aware of them.

In addition users may decide to impose limitations.  Often this is
done for security reasons.  In many workplaces the manager in charge
of PC security and digital communications does this, and he or she may
or may not clearly express what restrictions are in place.  Even when
they are made clear some workers will fail to pay attention to the
fine rules.

The following incident, which I experienced recently illuminates
the situation.

Recently I needed to send some photos to city hall.  I sent Email with
a tar file containing 12 jpeg images as an attachment but it bounced.
So I asked the person in charge why this happened.  She said that they
had a limit in their mail server.  I asked what was the maximum
message size allowed and she answered: "Five giga (bytes)."  I said
"Now five gigabytes is very large.  Are you sure?"  To this she
replied: "I heard that it was five something and I can only recall the
number five."  This came from a city official known to be highly
competent and well respected by co-workers.  Assuming that the actual
limit was five megabytes, I re-sized the images so that the entire
Email would smaller than that, and sent it out.  This time the mail
did not bounce.

But later, the civil servant told our organization the photos never
arrived.  So one of my colleagues printed the images on paper and
visited city hall in person to settle the matter.

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