Published: 10 November 2020

Reading time: About 3 minutes

No doubt you’ll have seen on the news that almost 16,000 cases of coronavirus were not included in UK totals at the end of September.  The reason? Because a spreadsheet had reached its maximum file size – and therefore, failed to update. 

The result was that these cases were not used for track and trace purposes and anyone who came into contact with those who tested positive were not informed in good time.  

Clearly, it has caused outrage with many shouting about the fact that a spreadsheet is an ill-chosen or old-fashioned method for a national data management system due to its limitations.  

The UK Government has spoken up about the situation saying, “A rapid mitigation has been put in place that splits large files and a full end to end review of all systems has also been instigated to mitigate the risk of this happening again. 

So, it seems the solution to the problem is now to simply split the large files into multiple documents. Still not the slickest method of doing things.  

Alan Woodward, visiting professor at the University of Surrey’s Department of Computer Science, told The Independent newspaper that, “It’s quite an oddity because it only seems to have been found out by happenstance. It’s not that the system was warning them.”  

So, was the issue not automatically flagged? Were other issues not picked up previously then? 

While we’re not a database software provider, the whole thing has got us thinking about the sheer importance of good data management and data governance in general. 

Can the Government, or any other public sector body in fact, really answer questions such as: 

  • How many spreadsheets are used on the estate?  
  • Who has access to them?  
  • What are they used for?  
  • When were they last accessed or updated? 
  • Have they been classified and categorised correctly? 
  • Can the data be made available to users across the organisation? 
  • Does the data contain risk?  
  • And will we be informed of that potential risk? (see above and the flagging of issues!) 

It is imperative an organisation, especially Central Government, understands the data it’s holding and has a clear data strategy 

Often public sector bodies have information everywhere, in different silos, of varying ages, and of varying quality. But without truly having a data governance system in place, think about the infosecurity concerns, the data privacy concerns, the regulatory risks and the lack of data insight that that results in 

So, while the government continues with its use of spreadsheets for Track and Trace, the fact is that questions still remain over its handling, and use, of information.