16,000 COVID-19 Cases Were Missing Because The UK Used Microsoft Excel To Store Data

Dhir Acharya - Oct 13, 2020


16,000 COVID-19 Cases Were Missing Because The UK Used Microsoft Excel To Store Data

Public Health England has admitted to leaving out 16,000 COVID-19 cases in the country from the daily report from September 25 to October 2.

Public Health England has admitted to leaving out 16,000 COVID-19 cases in the country from the daily report from September 25 to October 2. The missing number was later added to the daily total figures, but this error leads to serious consequences for monitoring the pandemic and the making of key decisions.

covid-19
16,000 COVID-19 cases were missing from the daily report

The missing number led to underestimating the outbreak scale in the UK as well as the resulting delay in recording details of new positive cases into the Test and Trace system of the NHS. While people testing positive for the coronavirus have been informed of the results but those in close contact with these cases are at the risk of exposure to the virus and they weren’t followed up immediately within 48 hours. This is why the error is so serious, so whose fault is it?

Later, it was discovered that the accident was due to a technical glitch. Specifically, the lab test results were transferred to an Excel file, which limits the number of rows handled in one tab. The file failed to update more cases. The issue was then solved by breaking the missing data into smaller spreadsheets.

covid-19
The data was missing from the Excel templates

Though public health workers and the government are doing an extremely demanding, challenging job controlling and fighting the pandemic, this mistake was obviously avoidable. Especially, now we have advanced technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence in our lives. With all the smart technologies surrounding, Public Health England chose to use Microsoft Excel to manage such a large amount of sensitive data.

In fact, Excel is a common and efficient tool for data analysis, but it has limitations that make it not suitable for managing massive data and sophisticated analyses. The companies analyzing the swab tests ingested the data into Excel templates, which was sent to PHE. The latest generation of Microsoft Excel (XLXS) allows for 16,384 columns and 1,048,576 rows, but PHE used XLS instead, an older format that could handle only 65,000 rows, equivalent to about 1,400 cases. After that limit, all further cases were left out, resulting in the missing 16,000 cases in the daily report.

>>> Fatality Rate Increases, Delhi’s Graveyard Clears Space For COVID-19 Victims

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