Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spreadsheet Horrors!

Law Technology News presents 9 Tips to Avoid Starring in a Spreadsheet Horror Story (June 18, 2013). (You might have to register on the site to see the story, but registration is free.)

Does "spreadsheet horror story" seem ridiculous? After all, spreadsheets are just a tool for crunching numbers and keeping track of data. Don't horror stories involve blood and guts or at least ghosts?

graphic shows spreadsheet with nonsense entries and cartoon face

Mistakes from spreadsheets can indeed be very scary. To make the point, the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group (EuSpRIG) has posted spreadsheet horror stories. (An older list, with stories from 2006 and earlier, is here.) A few examples:
  • April 2013: A student shows that spreadsheet errors skewed the results in an article by Harvard economists.
  • Jan. 2012: A spreadsheet error leads to four Olympics events being oversold by 10,000 tickets.
  • Dec. 2011: The admissions process for the Oxford history program was gummed up by errors entering test scores onto spreadsheets.
  • Nov. 2011: A spreadsheet error made it falsely appear that a cement factory was polluting and owed a $350,000 fine.
  • July 2011: An employee in Clallam County, WA, hides embezzlement by hiding spreadsheet rows.
The first tip for avoiding these nightmares is learning to use Excel (or some other spreadsheet program) well. The article's author (who is a consultant for Litéra Corp., which offers "content risk management solutions") recommends Mike Girvin's ExcellsFun YouTube channel, among other things. You can also take advantage of the training on Microsoft's site.

UW students, faculty, and staff have access to the Microsoft IT Academy at the UW. "The courses range from the very basics to expert to computer professional." UW Information Technology also offers free workshops on a variety of topics, including Intro to Microsoft Excel.

No matter how precise a spreadsheet appears, if you type in the wrong formula or the wrong numbers, you'll end up with bad results. Remember the old programmer's slogan: Garbage in, garbage out.

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