You can’t blame a “computing issue” for the Covid cock-up, Boris. Computers don’t make errors.

Photo by Jannes Van den wouwer on Unsplash

The British government is very keen to find anyone to blame for its failure to tame Coronavirus: the ‘complacent’ British public, the opposition, now it’s picking on my mates: computers.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that almost 16,000 positive Covid-19 test results went missing from computer systems, resulting in many more thousands of contacts not being told to self-isolate as quickly as they should have. A monumental cock-up that has the very real possibility of costing lives.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to apportion blame. On Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr Show he labelled the blunder a “computing issue”, implying it was something beyond human control.

He was at it again at Prime Minister’s Questions today in the Commons, when challenged on the blunder by the Leader of the Opposition. “You can’t have it both ways,” Boris retorted to the criticism. “You can’t call it a human error and a basic Excel error.”

Oh, yes you can. Because computers simply aren’t capable of making errors by themselves.

What went wrong?

First, a brief explanation of what went wrong. According to the BBC, the testing data was stored in a format called Comma Separated Values (CSV), which is all fine and lovely.

However, when that data was piped into a spreadsheet template that the NHS Test & Trace team could read, it was converted into the elderly XLS format, for reasons that still aren’t clear, but most likely because some public computers are still running vastly outdated versions of Excel that don’t understand more modern formats.

Excel spreadsheets formatted in XLS can only run to 65,000 rows, which resulted in some data being chopped off, Test & Trace not knowing about them, and tens of thousands of potentially infected folk not isolating as they should have. Not good, but not a “computing issue” — a clunking great human one.

Computers don’t make mistakes

One of the most salient qualities of computers is that they don’t make mistakes. They don’t come into work with hangovers, they haven’t had a blazing row with their husband, they don’t get distracted by the smell of a burger wafting over from a nearby cubicle. If you ask a computer what two plus two equals, the answer will be four, every time, without fail.

If the answer isn’t four, but six, or 4,565, or Johannesburg, something’s gone wrong in software. Software that big bags of salt water and toenails (ie. humans) have written. The computer is only capable of following the instructions we give it. It is not a dog.

(To be clear, there is a branch of AI where computers can effectively teach themselves how to do things when given enough data, but I think we can be 99.999999% certain that NHS Test & Trace isn’t on the bleeding edge of computer research. It appears to still be running Excel 2003, FFS).

In this case, we know the problem was caused by the choice of data format: XLS. Excel doesn’t make that decision for you. It’s not even been the default format that spreadsheets are saved in for well over a decade. A human actively made the decision to store the data in XLS and Excel did what it was told.

Excel is capable of horribly expensive and life-threatening miscalculations — this list of massive Excel blunders (hat tip to Rupert Goodwins for the link) lists everything from elections to multi-million financial blunders that have been caused by errors in Excel. But those errors were either attributed to human error in its use or human error in the coding of the software itself. The computer does what it’s told.

Governments avoid massive, life-destroying “computer errors” by putting competent, grown-up adults in charge of them. The British government put Dido Harding in charge of this one. That truly does not compute.

Freelance writer, editor and photographer. More at: www.mediabc.co.uk

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