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Earlier this week, a few thousand people and probably a dozen at least of my contacts, probably grinned with a knowing smile.
Of course I am writing about the UK’s national Serco Test and Trace spaff-up, relying on Excel spreadsheets, to collate and process Covid-19 tests.
If I had £500 for every time I had told people off for calling 'info in spreadsheets', a database, I could have retired by now.
The situation could be laughable, if it were not so important and crucial.
Now, if anyone wants to spread blame around, I would personally start with Microsoft. Why So, you might ask🤔
The original Lotus 1-2-3, as anyone who broke their teeth on it during the 1980’s may remember, only had a maximum of 8,192 rows (and 256 columns). Now if it had stayed at that size, a very limited number of fools would have tried to store lots of data in it and sensibly selected a proper database to do the job. But no. As Reeve’s and Mortimer might have said, “They couldn’t let it lie” - .
Microsoft’s Excel gave us 65,536 rows, immediately giving the illusion of it being a ‘database’, not a useful summary manipulation and presentation tool, which is what a spreadsheet does best. I have been involved in so many projects where users, managers and directors in some cases, have been firmly wedded to spreadsheets, needing to migrate to proper solutions, with protection, data control and robust audit. I have often proposed amnesty, after replacement system go-live, where spreadsheets can be dropped.
My proposal is that if the fearsome and opposing communities in Northern Ireland, could put their weapons beyond use, we should have a spreadsheet version of the Good Friday Agreement, where users do the same and promise never to return to them again. For some its starting to catch on thankfully.
For sure, Excel can be a good place to start for an initial prototype, but no one should continue to try to run a whole enterprise on it. Serco are not alone. Eight years ago or so, I worked with a big organisation, dealing with £8m of monthly transactions on Excel with its one million row and memory limit creaking & ready to break. Fifteen years earlier, with a turnover a 50th of that, spreadsheets just kind of worked. For that organisation it took about 4 months to procure and 12 to implement, a proper finance, feeder and self-service solution and they never looked back.
Serco however have apparently been paid £12b of taxpayers dosh and should have been able to build their own database quite quickly with 20 or so of the right ICT staff, none of which would have probably stuck with Excel, if there was any capability of a millions of test a day Moonshot a-coming.
In my time manipulating data, I have witnessed many things Excel does trying to be clever, without telling you. Truncating to 65,536 is common where old solutions can only use XLS format to export. No doubt you might have experienced that too. The type and length of unique ID’s seen in the SocialHousing sector, is ripe for Excel to helpfully swap then to scientific notation. How we laughed at that one, several weeks down the line.
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Steely Dan – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.
(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting www.acutanceconsulting.co.uk 07854-655009
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