Monthly Archive for October, 2020

Did Excel Cause the Government to Lose Covid Testing Data?

At the end of last month, there were a lot of headlines and articles about the fact that nearly 16,000 Covid-19 cases had gone unreported. To be precise, between the 25th September and the 2nd October, 15,841 cases had been left out of the government’s daily figures for England. Whilst all of the cases had been immediately informed that their test result was positive, there were significant delays in speaking to them to complete any contact tracing that might be required.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 5 October the Health secretary Matt Hancock said the issue had been caused by Public Health England (PHE) using a “legacy system” and he described the problem as a “glitch”. It then emerged that the issue was also something to do with the use of Microsoft Excel. So, what exactly was the problem?

The error was caused because of the process used by the PHE to consolidate data. Commercial firms paid to analyse Covid tests, submitted results as text-based lists called CSV (Comma Separated Value) files. These caused no problems. It was the file format PHE’s developers were using that led to cases being missed.

An old Excel file format known as XLS, which dates back to 1987 was being used. Microsoft replaced it with an updated version, XLSX, in 2007. An XLS file can only hold around 65,000 rows of data (65,536 precisely). The current version of Excel is capable of holding over a million rows of data.

Although there were, at that point, nowhere near 65,000 positive cases a day being identified, each test result created several rows of data, so any one XLS worksheet could only hold 1,400 cases. Once the worksheet had been filled, further cases were simply left off. Although many articles talk about exceeding Maximum file size, this is misleading, as maximum file size refers to something else entirely.

The big question is why an older Excel file format was used in the first place. If the most up to date version of Excel had been used, it would have handled 16 times the number of cases, which would have, at the very least, stopped this problem from occurring until the number of tests being processed was much higher.

The older format could have been used because XLS file format allows macros, whereas the newer XLSM does not, but an Excel file is very easily saved in the XLSM format, which does allow macros.

It was the fact that the PHE had, as Matt Hancock said used a “legacy system” that may be the real reason that the older format was chosen. On YouTube, Stand-up Maths posted on this subject and quoted an anonymous source in the NHS:

“Even up until very recently…this year (2020), they were using an old database within the NHS which has been around for over a decade and if they wanted to export a selection of those data points, because of a compatibility issue they could only export it as a XLS format”.

It seems that this could be the likely explanation. The NHS has been involved in a number of events in recent years, when using outdated software has caused it problems.

In the end, however, some have argued that it wasn’t the use of an outdated version of Excel that was the problem, it was the use of Excel at all, saying that Excel isn’t designed to handle such large amounts of data. That just isn’t true though. The row limit in the newest version of Excel is over 1 million, as noted earlier, but even this can be exceeded by using tools that come built into the program.

Rather than blame the tool used, the Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts, writing to the Health Secretary said:” This is not an IT glitch… This is a systematic failure that… can only be improved by long term investment in infrastructure and training.”.

It is understandable that the system to collate the data on Covid testing was put together quickly, but given the billions of pounds that have been spent on the Test and Trace system, this mistake should not have happened. And we certainly shouldn’t be blaming Excel.

World Vegan Month

November is World Vegan Month. Most people think of a vegan as someone who does not eat animals. That is certainly the case, but Veganism extends beyond this. It is a way of life that tries to avoid all forms of cruelty to animals for food, products, or any other purpose. Eating only a plant-based diet is at the heart of veganism, but it is only the beginning of it. Vegans not only do not eat meat; they also avoid fish, dairy, eggs, and honey. They will also not wear or use products like leather or fur.

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” – The Vegan Society

There are a number of good, proven reasons to become vegan:

  • For your own health. Studies have shown that consuming animal fats and proteins is linked to heart disease, colon and lung cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other conditions.
  • There is even some evidence that becoming a vegan treats/reverses health conditions you may already have. It is not a magic cure all, but a good balanced vegan diet would, in most cases, help with weight loss, which would, in turn, help with conditions like diabetes and heart problems.
  • Weight loss, in itself, is a good goal to help to stay healthy, even if you already are. Many animal products are calorie-dense. Sticking to a plant-based diet helps you lose weight and, more importantly, stay slim. 
  • Avoid food poisoning. Animal products can contain bacteria and other toxins. Not only that, but intensively farmed meat may also be laced with such things as antibiotics and hormones. The spectre of chlorine washed chicken being on UK supermarket shelves may make more people think of the Vegan option.
  • The wide variety of new meals. Rather than restricting you in what you eat, Veganism can lead you to try amazing new meals! There are more than 20,000 kinds of edible plants in the world. With spices, herbs and the right accompaniments, the possibilities are almost endless.
  • There has never been a better and easier time to become vegan. Supermarkets have entire sections of vegan food. Nearly every restaurant offers at least one vegan option and most more. Veganism is also becoming more and more popular.

In the past being a Vegan was not as easy as it currently is, with food-stores not offering vegan alternatives and restaurants not having not vegan options. Now there are meat substitutes and even honey and butter substitutes, so that being a vegan has never been easier and you don’t have to give up on things that you once would have missed.

World Vegan Month was established in 1994 to celebrate fifty years since the creation of The Vegan Society in the UK. There are celebrations and festivals to mark it, although, obviously this year celebrations are likely to be different. However, there are still some events occurring and you can find out more here.

You can also try out some Vegan recipes:

5 Minute Vegan Pancakes

Vegan Chocolate Cake

Creamy Vegan Pasta

Pumpkin curry with chickpeas

Veganism goes beyond diet and what you eat, however. Some would argue that it also entails practicing a cruelty free life style. Not using animal products for other purposes and being aware that many things we use every day can contain animal products or may have been tested on animals, and this can be everything from lipstick to deodorant. Veganism can also be about social responsibility and helping to preserve and improve the environment.

Websites:

Go Vegan

The Vegan Society

Hashtag  #VeganMonth

10 Top Tips for National Novel Writing Month

It is said that everyone has a novel in them, but if you have always wanted to write one, but never had the time, or if you’ve started novels, but never finished them, then perhaps you should sign up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It takes place in November and is an annual event where participants commit to writing a 50,000-word novel between November 1-30. It has to be a novel, not a play, or poem (or even the sentence “I can’t do this”, typed over and over again).

Starting at midnight (local time) on November 1st, writers can draft a new novel or re-write an old one, although you cannot continue a work-in-progress. Planning and outlining beforehand are, however, allowed.

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman

There are no prizes. You ‘win’ by completing the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. This means you’ll need to write an average of 1,667 words per day. You can sign up at NaNoWriMo website  and upload your completed novel there to verify your word count.

It seems like a daunting task, but here are 10 tips to make the whole challenge a little less intimidating.

1.LOVE the book you’re writing. Write the book or story that you really want to write, rather than one that you think would be commercial, or that you should write.

2. Work backwards. Plan only the ending of your story first and start writing. Once you have reached the end, you can go back and rework the novel, putting in elements that relate to the ending, ensuring that you reach it seamlessly.

3. Try writing for just a number of short periods a day. Surprisingly, two 15-minute bursts of writing every day may be enough. Even if you are not producing enough words initially, you will start to write more and more, and hopefully catch up.

4. Really know your characters. Know them better than your partner, your child, or your best friend. Give them a challenge, understand their character’s motivations and think how they will react to given situations. Ask yourself what would cause them the most conflict. See where your characters take you; you may have an outline, but your characters may take you off on an unexpected tangent. Let them.

5. Don’t expect your writing or novel to be perfect.  You won’t have every plot detail, or character motivation before you even begin. You can even think of the novel’s first draft as a way of gathering material and collecting as many ideas together as possible that can be then used later as part of your masterpiece.

6. ‘Build’ the world of your novel. Plan its backstory, geography, infrastructure and culture to ensure a tight internal continuity.

7. Try to distil the premise of your story into one sentence, defining the protagonist and his or her journey. Or you can just plot the most important scenes, even if you don’t know what happens between them, it still means you will have a roadmap to work with.

8. Don’t try to Edit as you write. Get everything down first, letting the words and ideas flow. Remember, this is not the finished novel; it is just the first draft.

9. Set aside a certain amount of time every day, whether it’s half an hour, or two hours, to write. Write at the same time every day, if having the routine makes it more likely that you will do the writing. 

10. If you suffer the dreaded writer’s block then stop writing the part you are writing and write something else. A different chapter, something that was not going to happen for another four chapters. Anything. Just make a note of what you were trying to do at that point you got stuck and you can go back and finish it later.

Bonus Tip – Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t write. There will be delays, things will interrupt you; you will just be simply too tired. Accept these times, because they will just happen. Carry on again when you can.

NaNoWriMo can be a lot of fun and it can help you with your writing ambitions. It isn’t easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding and even if you don’t quite get to the magic 50, 000 words, you are still left with much more experience and the start (or even the start and middle) of a novel that you can continue on with after the challenge is over.