England’s virus-tracking system enters the annals of spreadsheet horror stories.

Nearly 16,000 positive coronavirus cases recently went unrecorded in England’s tracking system, officials said on Monday. The glitch led to an undercount of the country’s tally and a delay in tracing infected people’s contacts, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark about their potential exposure.

The culprit was a spreadsheet snafu, explains today’s DealBook newsletter. Specifically, the system relied on files formatted for an older version of Microsoft Excel, which can only handle a certain number of cells. When key files got too big, thousands of entries were skipped. To fix the problem, large files are now split before feeding them into the system — in other words, more spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets’ power comes from their flexibility, which also makes them dangerous. Mistakes managing spreadsheets have thwarted genetic research, enabled billion-dollar trading losses and led to misguided notions about fiscal austerity. The European Spreadsheet Risks Interests Group, which has been holding conferences about the perils of spreadsheet applications for the past 20 years, maintains an extensive list of other horror stories.

That England’s much-maligned test-and-trace system succumbed to such a mundane error — and that it relied so heavily on spreadsheets at all — led to geeky humor on social media that might be amusing, if it weren’t so serious.

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