Pisspoor Government Software Pt 3412

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From our Swindon Correspondent:

From the Guardian:-

PHE was responsible for collating the test results from public and private labs, and publishing the daily updates on case count and tests performed.

But the rapid development of the testing programme has meant that much of the work is still done manually, with individual labs sending PHE spreadsheets containing their results. Although the system has improved from the early days of the pandemic, when some of the work was performed with phone calls, pens and paper, it is still far from automated.

In this case, the Guardian understands, one lab had sent its daily test report to PHE in the form of a CSV file – the simplest possible database format, just a list of values separated by commas. That report was then loaded into Microsoft Excel, and the new tests at the bottom were added to the main database.

I haven’t done this sort of work for a while, but I used to do quite a lot of it. People put things into Excel and then you load up all of it into a system. Sometimes, that’s just the specification. Excel is a common tool that pretty much everyone owns, so maybe you just send them out a template and for their sales or faults, they fill out a sheet, return it, and you import it.
But here’s what you don’t do: you don’t import it into Excel. You don’t store data, in any permanent way in Excel. Excel is not a database. You want something like SQL Server, MySQL or Oracle. You take the data sent in and validate it, then you apply it to a database. Here’s the sort of reason why:-
But while CSV files can be any size, Microsoft Excel files can only be 1,048,576 rows long – or, in older versions which PHE may have still been using, a mere 65,536. When a CSV file longer than that is opened, the bottom rows get cut off and are no longer displayed. That means that, once the lab had performed more than a million tests, it was only a matter of time before its reports failed to be read by PHE.
It’s also hard to do things like checking for duplicates, doing any sort of controls, any sort of fast reporting.
As part of that process, you also create some reports that show the following:-
  1. How many cases were in the database before the update
  2. How many cases came in from each lab
  3. How many failures there were (e.g. validation problems)
  4. How many cases are now in the database.
You send those reports to a manager who checks that it reconciles. This is basic, BASIC stuff that banks have been doing for decades. You could even have an automatic check when it processes and just alert someone if there’s an issue with the numbers. Or you know, just have a developer and a manager in every day, 7 days a week. This is supposed to be critical data for understanding the pandemic, so why would you want any delay whatsoever?

I’m going to presume there are no controls in this process. Lashing Excel together is what some Johnny in a user department with no software development experience does, not experienced software designers. I’m guessing there’s no controls for missing files from a lab, duplicate data from a lab, malformed data from a lab, no audit trails, no testing process.

And there’s simply no excuse. The people with skills to do this aren’t cheap, but they also aren’t that expensive. There’s probably people in some parts of government on furlough who could do this properly. This is what you get from government.

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Bloke in North Dorset
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Bloke in North Dorset

The problem is that everyone has Excel on their work machines so they think is the easiest way to share data because then everyone has access to the data.

Interrogating data in a database requires some basic database knowledge so managers don’t like it as they aren’t in control. The daft thing is its fairly quick to learn and and there’s some good tools to make it easy and once a query has been created it can be run any time and the result imported in to Excel if they must have it that way.

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

Yeah. Even if you don’t want to learn SQL, there’s tools that allow you to build queries (like Power BI).

jgh
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jgh

There are even database front ends that will present the data in a spreadysheety format so it looks familiar to the user.

Paul Mercer
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Paul Mercer

Generally finance does a better job of this than everyone else, since that’s where the fines happen when things go wrong. HMRC employs and contracts work out to a lot of developers, good people. Maybe every other government department could learn.

dodgy geezer
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dodgy geezer

Government used to have its own specialist internal computer consultancy – CCTA. This body had computer experts available for short-term loan to departments, and developed many of the standards used in the world today.

It was closed down in the 1990s on the grounds that outside industry could do the same job. Since she government computing has been a byword for expensively failed projects….

jgh
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jgh

How (and why) are they clicking through the “WARNING: imported file has been truncated” dialog?
I work with electoral databases. There’s typically 70,000+ entries per constituency. After seeing the truncation warning once you think “oh yes, of course, doh!” and never do it again. Like trying to read a PDF with MSWord.

Jim
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Jim

I think what you’re missing is that these people are not data experts, or even data novices. They will know nothing about it entirely. There’s a good chance the people running these offices will have been seconded from some other government or council department at a moments notice to get the illusion that ‘stuff is happening’ for politicians to crow about at press conferences. I have over the period of the lockdown been involved (as a spectator more than active participant) in a large planning permission application, one that itself involves over 1000 houses, that is part of an even… Read more »