Cautionary Tales – Wrong Tools Cost Lives

21st May, 2021

Microsoft Excel is great for business accounts… but maybe don’t use it to track a deadly disease.

The British Government promised to create a “world-beating” system to track deadly Covid 19 infections – but it included an outdated version of the off-the-shelf spreadsheet software Microsoft Excel. The result was disastrous.

When under pressure or lacking in expertise we can all be tempted to use a tool unsuitable for the job in hand. But whether fitting shelves or trying to halt a pandemic, we need to accept that cutting corners comes at a cost.

NB This podcast quotes Luca Pacioli, 15th century mathematician and accountant, as using the phrase “you will grope your way forward like a blind man”. A visually impaired listener writes to say, ” it really is not helpful to use blind, blindness, blind individuals as either a synonym or metaphor for stupidity and ignorance.” I agree.

Pacioli, of course, is a historical figure. I quoted him even though I wouldn’t use such a phrase myself. But in terms of this particular metaphor, we have not moved on from the 15th century as far as one might hope – so perhaps I should have been more cautious in my quotation. My listener has certainly given me cause to reflect about how I might deal differently with similar issues in future and I have apologised to them.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

On the history of accounting, our sources include Iris Origo The Merchant of Prato, Jane Gleeson-White’s Double-Entry, and my own Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy.

On digital spreadsheets listen to Planet Money and read Steven Levy’s “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge“.

On spreadsheet errors, Matt Parker’s “When Spreadsheets Attack“, Felienne Hermans’ “Enron’s Spreadsheets and Related Emails“, and “Spreadsheets May Be For You“, voiced by Gemma Arrowsmith.

On Smallpox, key sources include Bill Foege’s House on Fire and Charles Kenny’s The Plague Cycle.

On the Public Health England error, my thanks to members of the European Spreadsheet Risks Group (EUSPRIG). Useful contemporary reports by Leo Kelion of the BBC and Ed Conway of Sky News are worth reading.

Does Contact Tracing Work? Quasi-Experimental Evidence from an Excel Error in England. Thiemo Fetzer and Thomas Graeber

Bill Gates was speaking to me in an interview for How To Vaccinate The World (BBC Radio).

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