City Writes Winter 2020 Competition Deadline

By Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone

The event that showcases City’s Short Course Creative Writing talent is back on Zoom. After our successful virtual City Writes in the Summer Term, we are delighted to be returning with another City Writes via Zoom this term on:

Wednesday 9th December 6.45-8pm.

Our professional writer this term will be the fabulous Novel Studio and Short Courses alumna Deepa Anappara, whose debut, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, was longlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this year. A wonderful novel about child disappearances from the outskirts of a large Indian city, Deepa will be reading a short extract and answering questions from host, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and audience.

Guest author Deepa Anappara
For your chance to read alongside Deepa, you need only send your best 1,000 words of fiction or creative non-fiction by:
Friday 13th November.

Competition and submission guidelines can be found here.

If you’re keen to get ahead do register for the event on the 9th here.

Competition winners will be announced in week 9.

We look forward to receiving your submissions and seeing you in December!

City Novel Studio Agent Competition Winners

By Emily Pedder

We are  delighted to announce the winners of City’s Novel Studio Agent Competition 2020. In a rare opportunity to bypass the slush pile, all applications to the Novel Studio are automatically considered for our literary agent competition, run in conjunction with Christine Green Authors’ Agency.

Competition winner Nana Wereko-Brobby

This year’s winners are Janice Okoh, Freya Sanders and Nana Wereko-Brobby.

Novel Studio tutor Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone said ‘The standard of submissions this year was really high and these three winners are writers with some serious promise. Alongside depth of character and enticing plot, their writing shines with eloquence. This is a group of writers to watch!’

Competition winner Janice Okoh

The Novel Studio is City’s flagship year-long course for aspiring novelists. Established for over a decade, the course has a strong track record of published alumni including bestselling authors Harriet Tyce and Hannah Begbie, and debut novelist Deepa Anappara.

Competition winner Freya Sanders

An early winner of the agent competition, Hannah Begbie has gone on to publish two award-winning novels, Mother and Blurred Lines. Another winner, Louise Beere, was shortlisted for the 2019 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.

Congratulations to Janice, Freya and Nana! We can’t wait to see your writing careers develop over the coming months and years.

What really caused the Excel error in NHS Test and Trace COVID-19 system? An in-depth technical analysis.

Introduction

This is an in-depth analysis of the reasons that led to the COVID-19 positive results Excel error of the NHS Test and Trace system. The analysis is done using knowledge that a student can gain after studying a series of computing short courses at City, specifically Applied MS Excel, the series of VBA in Excel courses and the Database Design with SQL Server short course.

We have collated information published by the government and reported by news media to recreate, as faithfully as possible, the process that failed importing all COVID-19 positive test results.

We are also recommending steps that every company should follow when importing data from external partners, and the learning path prospective computing short courses students should take to gain enough knowledge to solve similar integration problems effectively.

Background

On Monday 5th October 2020 UK newspapers were reporting of a technical error in NHS’s test-and-trace system. The error meant that more than 15,000 positive cases of COVID-19 infections between 25th September and 2nd October were not included in daily statistics and thousands of people who had come in contact with infected individuals were not alerted.

In this post we are going to focus on the technological aspects of the error. We will try to figure out what might have gone wrong, by putting together information published by the government and newspapers and will give recommendations on what you can do to avoid facing similar errors when importing third party data or integrating your systems with external partners.

Information gathering

We will base our assumptions on a note describing the methodology used for COVID-19 testing data, published by the UK government [gov.uk-note]. It appears that testing is categorised into four pillars. According to the Mirror [Mirror], the error happened while handling ‘Pillar 2’ data. According to [gov.uk-note], pillar 2 is testing for the wider population collected by commercial partners. The dataset for pillar 2 testing comprises of:

  • nose and throat swabs, which are counted together as one sample
  • tests counted as they are dispatched
  • ‘in-person’ tests processed through laboratories, excluding the ones counted at dispatch
  • positive cases.

According to the note, there have been a couple of revisions to pillar 2 metrics and methodologies.

On the positive test results, which was the dataset where the error occurred, methodology was updated on 2nd July to remove duplicates across pillars 1 and 2, to ensure that a person who tests positive is only counted once. Specifically for England, the lab surveillance system for pillar 1 and 2 results removes duplicate records by running a complex algorithm that identifies individuals and only uses their first positive result for the metric. The algorithm uses the following properties to uniquely identify an individual:

  • NHS Number
  • Surname and Forename
  • Hospital Number
  • Date of Birth
  • Postcode

News media presented a series of explanations of what is believed that had gone wrong.

  • According to Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, “Excel spreadsheet reached its maximum size” [Mirror] [Mail]
  • Daily Mirror also reports that “Outdated Excel spreadsheet format that was not capable of displaying all the lines of data” was the issue. [Mirror2]
  • Daily Telegraph [Telegraph] goes into more details: “The problem emerged in a PHE (Public Health England) legacy system. Public Health England was reportedly using an automatic process to pull the testing data it received from commercial firms carrying out virus swabs into Excel templates. But the old Excel file format being used – XLS – could only handle 65,000 data rows. The files have now been split into smaller multiple files to prevent the issue happening again”.
  • The Guardian [Guardian] on the other hand reports that the process is not completely automated and a lot of work is still done manually. It appears that CSV files are sent from labs to PHE, which are then loaded into Excel.
  • Finally, BBC reports that each test result created several rows of data. In the same article, there is also a comparison between the XLS and XLSX file formats of Excel, claiming that the new format would be able to handle 16 times more cases than the older XLS one. [BBC]

In depth analysis of what caused the COVID-19 Excel error

Public Health England has not yet published exact details of what went wrong. What we will do is to try and simulate what might have happened, by putting together pieces of information from the governmental website and news media reports.

To do so, we will create a dummy CSV file that contains the properties(fields) [wikipedia-csv] used as unique identifiers for each person tested, together with some dummy fields that represent test results. We will then go through the most plausible scenarios and discuss what could have gone wrong, to produce the error experienced by the NHS Test-and-trace team.

A CSV file is a text file that represents tabular data. This means that it contains a specific number of columns and one or more rows. According to the basic rules for CSV files [wikipedia-csv] and the 2005 technical standard RFC4180 which formalises the CSV file format, “All records should have the same number of fields, in the same order”.

This is an example of what data would definitely exist in the CSV file (first represented as a table and then in CSV format – Disclaimer: NHS numbers are random):

NHS Number Surname Forename Hospital number Date of Birth Postcode
485 777 3456 Smith John HN3829904 12/03/2001 HD7 5UZ
943 476 5919 Smith Jane 21/12/1958 HD7 5UZ

This is a CSV representation of the above tabular data:

NHS Number,Surname,Forename,Hospital number,Date of Birth,Postcode
485 777 3456,Smith,John,HN3829904,12/03/2001,HD7 5UZ
943 476 5919,Smith,Jane,,21/12/1958,HD7 5UZ

Further columns could be added to represent test results, but each row (record) should have values for each column (or at least simply a comma if a value is missing).

In order to test importing CSV files that are very large for Excel to handle, we created a dummy CSV file with 1,050,001 rows that has the following fields: NHS Number, Surname, Forename, Hospital number, Date of Birth, Postcode, Test number, Test result. The number of rows is larger than the limit of 1,048,576 rows that newer versions of Excel have [Excel-limitations].

The file contains random data that do not conform to data types of individual attributes. Specifically, the NHS Numbers generated are 10 random digits, where the 10th digit is not the control digit, postcodes simply follow the rule of having two letters-one or two numbers-space-one number-two letters format to look like postcodes but are not verified to be valid postcodes. You can download the dummy file from our Covid-19 Excel error analysis GitLab repository, where you will also find the Excel VBA code used to generate the test data.

Importing a CSV file that Excel cannot handle

Let’s try to import the generated CSV file into Excel. We do not know the version of Excel PHE is using, so we are going to go with the latest Excel 2019. News reports do mention that XLSX format could be used, so we assume PHE is using an Excel version after Excel 2007, but we are expecting similar error messages will appear in all Excel versions.

Opening CSV file directly in Excel

Here we see the error message we get if we try to open the generated CSV file directly in Excel. The way we opened it was by double clicking on the CSV file in the File Explorer, as the CSV extension is associated with MS Excel automatically during typical installation. An alternative way of opening the CSV file from within Excel would be to use the Open dialog, navigate to the directory that the CSV file is stored in and open the file from there.

Excel error message when trying to import CSV file with more rows than Excel can handle in one worksheet

The error explains clearly that when the user clicks OK, Excel will truncate the file and only show the part that fits the rows and columns available in one worksheet.

Importing CSV using Power Query (also called Get and Transform or Get Data)

If the user tries to use this new Excel functionality to import the CSV file she will be faced with the following error:

Excel error explaining that CSV file being imported will be truncated as it has more rows than an Excel worksheet can handle

Again here we see a very clear error message, which explains that when the user clicks OK the data will be truncated and Excel will only display as much data as it can fit in a worksheet. Clicking Cancel will not import any data at all.

We see that both ways of opening a file in Excel, without using VBA code, show an error message notifying the user that data will be truncated. Clicking OK and continuing with only the data that fit in a worksheet is obviously human error.

Importing CSV using VBA in Excel

News reports mention that there is a (semi)automatic way of importing data in CSV format. Such automation can be done in many different ways. One automation could be that the user opens the CSV file normally and then, using a central dashboard, instructs Excel which worksheet represents the CSV file that was just opened and should be imported. A variation of this kind of automation could be that the user points to a Table in Excel as the input that represents the imported CSV file (a Table is created when Power Query is used to import a CSV file). Both of these scenarios expect the user to open the file with one of the ways we describe above.

Another way of importing a CSV file would be using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code in Excel. Again here there are many valid ways that VBA code can be written to import text files. In order to test this scenario, we created a VBA subroutine that reads a CSV file one row at a time. Each row that is read is split into attribute values and entered in the next available row of a worksheet. No error handling was implemented in the code.

Below you can see the type of error the user would get if the CSV file was imported via VBA code. This is the error message shown by the VBA interpreter:

Visual Basic for Applications error shown while importing a CSV file that has more rows than an Excel worksheetThis error message is definitely a lot more cryptic than the two errors seen above. The choice of buttons is also quite difficult to work with, by an untrained user. I am not sure whether the user would click on “Help” (only to get further unhelpful information – as shown below), or simply click “End” to stop the execution of the VBA automation. I am fairly certain though that either way the thought that first came to the user’s mind would be “HELP! I don’t know what to do.”.

Help page from Excel explaining the VBA error caused while importing a very large CSV fileIn every way we see this, an error message would have appeared on screen, which means a user clicked OK without understanding the implications, possibly due to no relevant training. There is one possibility that the user importing the CSV file might have not been shown an error message. In this scenario, a VBA developer chooses to suppress all error messages shown from the VBA interpreter (like the one above). This is usually done either in an effort to avoid scaring the end user, believing that no error messages will be thrown by the VBA code written and if any is thrown it won’t affect the end result. In this case, human error is still the cause of the truncated dataset. However it is not the end user importing the CSV file that caused the error, but the VBA developer.

Remarks on the process

Storage structure of test results in CSV file

BBC [BBC] reports that each test result generates more than one row of data. We have two interpretations of what this could actually mean, based on the fact that data is delivered in CSV format.

  1. Each test generates time based results, i.e. one value in 30 minutes, another value in 90 minutes etc. and the decision whether the test is positive or negative comes after a simple calculation between these values.
  2. The process was misunderstood by the reporter. What really was meant is that in the same dataset there might be two tests (with two individual test IDs) for the same patient. This might happen if for example the first test became contaminated or a second test was done the same day for whatever reason.

As mentioned in Wikipedia “CSV formats are best used to represent sets or sequences of records in which each record has an identical list of fields. This corresponds to a single relation in a relational database, or to data in a typical spreadsheet”. The relational model used in relational databases and spreadsheets is most often represented as a table, where a header defines the attribute(field) names and each row has attribute values for each attribute name. In the relational model each row represents a unique record. This is the reason we are sceptical about the premise that a test result generates more than one row of data. Each row needs to be unique in some way, by a combination of attribute values. The use of a relational format to represent data that are not following the relational model does not make sense. This is how our assumption was made that each result must be unique either by including a timestamp or some other unique identifier or attribute, if two or more rows of the dataset are for the same test. On the other hand, we believe it is catastrophic if two rows cannot be uniquely identified as an individual entity, but still give two values for the same attribute.

Use of CSV for transportation of results

CSV is a very widely used format. It is not known when it was first created, but it already existed in 1972 [IBM-Fortran]. Even though it has been used for at least five decades, CSV support is varying across software. Its flexibility means that it is very easy to create CSV files that do not conform to all expected characteristics of CSV files. It is also very easy to break. A badly generated CSV file with the wrong value for one of its attributes, for example a comma to denote thousands in a number, i.e. 1,532.25, would not be imported correctly by any software, unless a different separator was used instead of a comma, a practice that is quite common. Usually the structure of CSV files is documented within a project, so that both the exporting and importing applications can correctly support the files generated.

Taking into consideration the limitations and old age of CSV format, as well as the potential duplication of data between multiple rows in the CSV file, we believe a different file format should be used (e.g. XML or JSON).

Use of Excel

There has been a lot of criticism on the use of Excel for COVID-19 test results, given that PHE already has a robust database, used for years, to collate test results for various diseases [Sky-news]. From this Sky News article we see that Pillar 2 data are probably the only data not directly sent to the database. It appears that Excel is used to open and upload the CSV data to the database.

Is the use of Excel valid in the case of getting COVID-19 test results from Pillar 2 privately-run labs and converting them and sending them to the main PHE database? We need to think of all the requirements and limitations that existed at the time of conception of this use of Excel, before we decide:

  • First of all, in March 2020, with the need to increase COVID-19 tests rapidly, privately-run labs were set up. We believe that each lab is using its own software to record test results. It is expected that most if not all of this software was able to export to CSV format quite easily, maybe with minimal set up.
  • Second, uploading data to any database needs to pass some validation, so that the database does not become corrupt. Such checks are best performed on the side of the database, instead of the side of the user – where user is each lab.
  • Third, new software needed to be created in almost no time to be able to handle the data sent by the labs. It would also need to be used by users that would require almost no new training. This means that an extension for a software that users already know how to use is the best option.

Excel is probably the software all PHE users knew how to use, in varying degrees, depending on their position. For time zero, a VBA extension in Excel seems like the first logical step. Excel VBA is commonly used as a rapid application development tool to test an idea.

VBA is a quite flexible language that, by leveraging the power of Excel, can help create very powerful extensions in very short time. We believe a very first version of a VBA extension that could handle CSV files sent by private labs could be created in a few hours, to handle the first data coming in, needing processing and uploading to the database.

Once a primitive way of importing data was set up, two parallel processes should have begun:

  • One should revise, expand and vigorously test functionality of the VBA extension, with a focus to eliminate human error from the process as much as possible.
  • The other should be to create an implementation that bypasses Excel all together and allows privately-run labs to use it to upload test results directly. A great way to do so would be through a restricted secure web service.

We believe that if the importing VBA process was correctly designed and tested, even an old version of Excel from 20 years ago could handle any CSV file size. The limitation of 65,536 rows that Excel has for each worksheet is not something that should stop an experienced VBA developer in creating a robust VBA add-in that can import CSV files of any size.

  1. If the contents of the CSV file are converted by an Excel template to be uploaded to the PHE database, then the VBA procedure should read in memory one row of data at a time and upload it, instead of importing the whole file in a worksheet. This approach has two limitations. The amount of RAM available on the PC to hold one row of data in memory and the amount of hard disk space available to allow storing the CSV file. We believe that both of these are sufficient on the PC where the error occurred, given that it successfully loaded sixty five thousand rows into Excel.
  2. If the user needed to view the raw data of the CSV file in Excel then, depending on the screen size, only about a hundred rows of data would need to be displayed at any one time. This can be achieved using a sliding window technique. Again, this is something that Excel could handle in pre-2007 versions, as it is far lower than the 65,536 rows available.

Our conclusion is that Excel was correctly used as a solution that satisfied all requirements at the time. A correctly designed and implemented Excel VBA add-in is also able to handle any number of rows from a CSV file.

What should you do to avoid this happening to your company?

Let’s explore best practices when importing data and integrating processes with an external company. If your company is collaborating with an external partner and prepares to import their data, then you need to have a bulletproof process to handle the incoming data. It is important to create an automated process and remove user involvement as much as possible to minimise or even eliminate human error. It is very important to test your automation vigorously, especially at edge cases and around known limitations.

If you are starting a new partnership and you want to test a satisfactory integration solution before implementing a full system that will cost a lot, Excel is a great choice. Most IT users already have some exposure to Excel. With minimal training you can train your end users to use VBA add-ins. Excel has grown and matured to become a tool that can handle any amount of data, limited only by system resources, provided that data is loaded judiciously.

You need a specialist that understands data, Excel, VBA and databases in depth.

What computing short courses will provide required knowledge?

A computing short courses student that has taken Excel, VBA and Database short courses will be able to design and implement a system that can import any amount of data from a CSV file into Excel and store it in a large database. Our recommended learning path would be:

Conclusion

A robust automated system could have been created using Excel and VBA to handle importing of COVID-19 test results from CSV files of any size. Both Excel and VBA are able to handle this, if the automation is correctly designed, implemented and tested. A computing short courses student that has studied City’s Applied MS Excel for Business course, VBA in Excel series of short courses and optionally the Database Design course would have enough knowledge to design and implement such a system.

Furthermore, if end users of the NHS Test and Trace system were trained on the way the CSV importing automation works for COVID-19 test results from privately-run labs, they would be able to alert immediately that one of the CSV files could not be handled by the automation, saving precious time in the tracing of contacts of infected individuals.

We conclude that it was definitely human error that caused the COVID-19 positive cases to be missed, either at the user level while importing the data, or at a developer level where limitations of Excel were not taken into account. A well informed and trained Excel VBA specialist would be able to design and implement a CSV import and conversion system correctly.

References

[BBC] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-54423988, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Excel-limitations] https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/excel-specifications-and-limits-1672b34d-7043-467e-8e27-269d656771c3, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[gov.uk-note] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-testing-data-methodology/covid-19-testing-data-methodology-note, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Guardian] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/oct/05/how-excel-may-have-caused-loss-of-16000-covid-tests-in-england, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[IBM-Fortran] http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/ibm/370/fortran/GC28-6884-0_IBM_FORTRAN_Program_Products_for_OS_and_CMS_General_Information_Jul72.pdf, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Mail] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8805697/Furious-blame-game-16-000-Covid-cases-missed-Excel-glitch.html, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Mirror] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/16000-coronavirus-tests-went-missing-22794820, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Mirror2] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/spreadsheet-blunder-meant-48000-potentially-22797866, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Sky-News] https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-data-can-save-lives-data-can-cost-lives-and-this-latest-testing-blunder-will-likely-prove-it-12090904, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[Telegraph] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2020/10/05/excel-error-led-16000-missing-coronavirus-cases/, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

[wikipedia-csv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma-separated_values, retrieved 10/Oct/2020.

About the author

Dionysis Dimakopoulos is the subject coordinator for the computing short courses at City, University of London. He has been teaching Visual Basic for Applications in Excel since 2003. He is an experienced software engineer, IT integrations consultant and published researcher. He has decades of experience creating systems that combine the power of web services with the familiar interface of Excel for engineering or financial applications, or offer interoperability with Office and other applications. His latest work is on the Learning Designer, an open online learning design tool for teachers in all sectors of education and subject areas, used around the globe, where he is the lead developer.

What Are SMART Objectives?

Businesses need goals in order to grow and experience the desired success. As part of one’s individual job role, it’s logical for each person to also have individual goals. General targets such as “increase sales” and “improve the lead conversion rate” are too vague. How does a business or marketing professional decide what is or is not a realistic target, and the how of achieving those targets? They do this through something called SMART. It is a process of carefully considering goals in an overall plan of implementation and measuring results.

What elements comprise the SMART acronym?

Specific: This means that a personal or business target must be clearly defined. Vague or generic goals are not useful as they do nothing to push the business forward. Being organised from the start and understanding what the goals are helps set out the remainder of the list. Multiple goals are sometimes required when aiming for an intended outcome. A specific goal can be to increase ecommerce revenue by 15%.

Measurable: Having a specific goal must be measurable in some form. The target of increasing ecommerce revenue by 15% is certainly measurable as the relevant people will observe it the cash flow. There are tools a business might use to measure ecommerce revenue, especially if their sales are multichannel (for example selling products through the web and brick and mortar stores).

Achievable: This defines what steps might be required to achieve the goal. Achievable goals need to strike the balance between improving the current situation and requiring a rethink or change of practice to achieve them. It differs from realistic in that “achievable” means a goal that could improve given the right preparation.

Realistic: No business could ever enter a market on a Tuesday and be its market leader by Friday of the same week. Realistic looks at the rules of a market and the potential for progress. A goal must be possible given the investment, resources, skills and in line with trends. It’s should be achievable with a change in strategy, but not impossible.

Timebound: This is the all-important deadline. For business or personal goals, such targets can only work if there is a time limit placed on the goal. A personal goal like “lose weight” is SMART when a target weight and a date is set – lose four stone by our summer holiday. It is the same with businesses. Increasing ecommerce sales by 10% should have a relevant goal such as the business’ busiest quarter.

Why are SMART objectives important?

SMART is a carefully designed system that a business of any size may apply. It’s broad enough to apply equally to marketing, business goals, and cost savings goals, for any business in any industry, and of any size. At the same time, SMART is specific enough to work as a tangible framework of prompts and guides to help experienced and new business owners and marketing executives develop. It’s a system of support, a strategy, and a framework to develop a business.

More than that, SMART is also a method of tracking goals over time. When used correctly, it is a flexible system to help you learn from your mistakes and successes and apply them further in the personal or business SMART framework.

Example goal with SMART applied

A typical personal goal might be: I want to resign from my job and start a business. That goal is vague and the person setting it is likely to give up on it before they have even begun to give it due and serious consideration. Starting a business is an exciting task. It’s also daunting, fraught with difficulty and possibility in equal measure.

A SMART version of the statement may look a little like this.

Specific: I will investigate the potential for setting up in business in line with my skills, qualifications, and experiences before deciding on products or services that could provide a genuine business opportunity. For example: as a wedding photographer.

Measurable: By the end of the first month of setting up my business, I will have a business plan, including a list of services, and a date that my business will effectively open for trade. I will also set up business pages on social media and have a website in this time advertising a list of my services.

Achievable: I will start with a personal website and start taking practice photoshoots now with volunteer models. That way, when I start shooting weddings for real, I will have a portfolio to show to potential clients. Is specialist training or certification required?

Realistic: In order to make it as a wedding photographer in a short space of time, the person must understand photography principles and know how to use the equipment correctly, and build a relationship with local venues.

Timebound: What is the viable timeframe to establish a wedding photography business?

If you’d like to know more about SMART and other goal-setting tools in business, have you considered an introduction to marketing course?

 

Novel Studio Scholarship Winner 2020

Winner of 2020 Novel Studio Scholarship Announced

By Emily Pedder

The second  Novel Studio scholarship, set up to support a talented writer from a low-income household, has been awarded to Janice Okoh.

Janice will now join The Novel Studio 2020/21, alongside 14 other selected writers. Speaking of Janice’s application,  Novel Studio tutor Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone commented: “I was totally gripped by the story that Janice Okoh sent in with her application. Her work is filled with character, pace and a beautiful sense of place. There is an urgency to get across a British Nigerian experience that sings from the page.”

Janice Okoh, winner of Novel Studio Scholarship 2020

On winning the scholarship, Janice said she was “thrilled to be able to  further develop my novel writing skills on such a prestigious course.  I have so many ideas, I can’t wait to focus on one of them and interrogate it for an entire year. Like a lot of people, the effects of the pandemic meant that I lost a substantial part of my planned income so without the scholarship I would not have been able to attend the course. Thank you, Harriet Tyce.”

Novel Studio alumna and crime writer Harriet Tyce set up the scholarship in 2019 as a way to help talented writers who might not otherwise be able to take up a place on the course. Lola Okolosie, the inaugural recipient of the scholarship, has said the opportunity was “life changing”.

The Lies You Told, Harriet Tyce’s second novel

Harriet was a student on the Novel Studio in 2009/10 and went on to gain a place on the MA Crime Fiction at UEA, where she received a distinction. In 2017 Wildfire pre-empted her debut psychological thriller, Blood Orange. It was subsequently sold in 19 territories worldwide and became a Sunday Time bestseller. Her second novel, The Lies You Told, described by Sophie Hannah as ‘totally addictive’, was published in August 2020 to rave reviews.

The Novel Studio has been running as part of City’s short courses programme since 2004 and has been instrumental in providing a foundation for emerging writers to go on to successful publishing careers. Taught by professional writers and editors, 15 selected students develop their novels over a year. The course has a  strong publication record, with many alumni publishing novels with major publishing houses, including, most recently, Deepa Anappara, Hannah Begbie and Harriet.

Congratulations, Janice! We are so looking forward to seeing your novel develop over the year.

For more on all our writing short courses, including The Novel Studio, visit.

What short courses can I do online?

Covid-19 has changed adult education overnight. With all classroom learning postponed until further notice, many of us are seeking out alternatives ways to upskill or pursue a new interest.  And there is certainly no shortage of choice!

The internet is over-saturated with distant learning providers, from prerecorded lectures to technology led learning, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you have found yourself asking the question ‘what short courses can I do online?’ we have some top tips for finding an online course.

Top 3 tips for picking an online course

  1. Find a reputable provider

With so many options online, is can be hard to identity reputable providers from a host of low-quality distant learning courses. Do your research. Be cautious of unknown providers or courses offered at exceptionally low cost – if it seems too good to be true, it may well be.

  1. Be mindful of group sizes

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are free online courses open to anyone across the world. While this may seem like an attractive offer, it is a learning experience that will not suit everyone. You’ll be one of tens of thousands of students taking a course, meaning there won’t be opportunities to have one-to-one meetings and direct feedback from the tutor. If you want a tutor-led experience, where the tutor will be mindful of whether you are doing well or you need extra support a MOOC is not the answer.

  1. Look for courses with live tutor engagement

The term distant learning can mean many different things. To really get the most out of your time, look for a course that provides live, two-way interaction between you and your tutor. Not only can building a rapport with your tutor and peers improve your performance, it also makes a much more personable and enjoyable learning experience.

Short Courses at City, University of London

City, University of London has already started teaching short courses remotely. We hope that you’ll learn with us and enjoy the benefits we have on offer. If you’re still not sure, here are some reasons to study online with City.

Quality education from a world-leading University

City, University of London is one of the most trusted names in adult education, with a longstanding reputation for excellence across all our short course provision. As part of the prestigious University of London Federation, we offer industry-led education at a world-class University.

Learn as part of small group

Traditionally a face-to-face provider, City Short Courses can bring the benefits of classroom learning to your home. You will learn as part of a small group, with no more than 20 other students – but usually less than ten and often just four or five others – creating a personable and tailored learning experience.

“It’s great to be able to participate in classes from the comfort of your own home and it helps to have a small class size, so we get lots of time to talk about our work and get feedback from the tutor.”

Hamdi Khalif, The Novel Studio student

Quality time and feedback from your tutor

Due to our small group-size, you’ll be guaranteed a high level of interaction with your tutor. Our tutors will be available to you live throughout the class, giving you ample opportunity to ask questions and work at a pace that suits you.

“Each group and class I teach is completely unique. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in my classes, they are very much led by the individual students’ interests or areas of concern. The students get so much more out of the lessons when learning is directed by the students’ needs”.

 Dionisios Dimakopoulos, Tutor and Computing Course Coordinator 

Next term starts Monday 28th September 2020, find out more about our courses and enrol online.

Novel Studio Showcase 2020

Readers and guests from The Novel Studio Showcase

Harriet Tyce introducing the night

Last Wednesday the Novel Studio showcase took place on Zoom for the very first time. And what a night it was. Hosted brilliantly by tutor Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, with an introduction by Novel Studio alumna and scholarship sponsor, Harriet Tyce, the event was attended by over 100 guests.

With 12 students reading 4 minute extracts from their novels-in-progress it was a chance for friends, family and industry attendees to hear the astonishing talent on display, and owing to Zoom’s chat facility, feedback was instantaneous and uniformly glowing. Any fears over a lack of atmosphere online were soon dispelled by the unexpected intimacy afforded by hearing the work on Zoom. As one observer commented, ‘It was like being read to in your own room.” A resounding success, one agent said it was her ‘favourite Zoom event by far this year.”

Thank you to the students, our tutors, all our guests and to our fantastic short course team who helped make the night possible.

For those who didn’t get a chance to be there on the night, the whole evening is available to view again here.

Congratulations class of 2020!!

For more information about the Novel Studio visit our course page here.

City Writes Takes to Zoom with Magical Effect

By Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone

What a delight to be able to share our fabulous City Writes competition winners alongside alumna, author, screenwriter and folklorist Shahrukh Husain, with a Zoom audience on Wednesday the 8th July 2020. After delaying the Spring event due to the pandemic, it was brilliant to be back online.

Competition winners, Alexandra McDermott, Marina Nenadic, Mike Clarke, AS Renard and Linda Fripps all shared their stories, taking us from Kansas, to a fish market in Gothenburg, then to a comedy club in Hackney, a horse ride through Mexico and finally to a treatment room in a Children’s A&E department. The authors all read brilliantly. Something about Zoom really lends an intimacy to readings that creates a plus side to missing out on seeing people in the flesh. It’s great to be spellbound by voices that transport us with their stories.

Following the readings, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Shahrukh Husain. A former student on the Certificate in Novel Writing (the Novel Studio as was), Shahrukh is an incredibly experienced and talented writer with a love and enthusiasm for storytelling that is infectious. Focused around the recent republication of The Virago Book of Witches, which she edited and wrote a new forward for, our conversation explored the witch across cultures and through history. 

For those of you wanting a more in-depth experience, a video of the event is available to watch here. I thoroughly recommend it. The readings and conversation were inspiring. I left wanting to get reading and writing as well as feeling filled with enthusiasm for next term’s City Writes (also to be held on Zoom) that will host the wonderful Deepa Anappara, whose novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, was longlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this year. Watch this space for announcements of competition deadlines and event dates.

Top Ten Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

By Caroline Green

Crime fiction is booming right now. If you have ever wondered if you could write for this thriving, thrilling genre, here are ten things you should know:

  1. Understand who you are writing for. Read widely within the genre and decide what type of crime fiction you love to read. (Frankly, if you don’t get excited about reading it, why do you want to write it?)
  2. But after you’ve read all those lovely books, don’t try and second guess the market. No one saw the likes of Girl On The Train. The most important thing is to know the genre but write what you want to write.
  3. Watch quality drama as well as reading books. Programmes such as Happy Valley or Line of Duty can teach budding crime writers a lot, despite being delivered via a different medium.
  4. Aim for living, breathing, characters, not cardboard cut-outs. If you are writing another alcoholic PI or police investigator make sure they are so well-rounded they could step right off the page. What is their back story? What made them who they are?
  5. Don’t be afraid to delve into your dark side. Your own imagination is more powerful – and has more twists – than all the CGI in the world. Tap into it and never shy away from those big, bold ideas that make you think, ‘Dare I…?’.
  6. The best twists don’t come hurtling out of nowhere. The really satisfying ones make such perfect sense, you can’t believe you didn’t see them coming.
  7. Remember that conflict is the engine of story-telling. Try to weave some form of conflict into every single scene, every conversation, every plot line.
  8. Think about the ‘why-dunnit’ and not just the ‘who’. The reason psychological thrillers have taken off so much – and helped cause that boom in sales – is that the psychology behind dark deeds makes for a gripping read.
  9. Vary your pace. Sometimes readers need space to breathe, and others they need to be sent hurtling towards the thrilling climax of your story.
  10. Let your setting do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating atmosphere. A creepy atmospheric setting can really help rachet up tension.

 

Caroline Green writes best-selling thrillers as Cass Green and teaches our Crime Writing Summer School. Enrol now for a week’s course delivered online, starting 20th July.

Our Turn to Learn: How Short Courses Adapted to Covid-19

In week eight of the short courses spring term the country was hurled into lockdown and all classroom teaching was formally suspended.

News of these much-needed safety measures was welcomed by the Short Course team; but with two more weeks of teaching to go and a new term around the corner, the pressure was on.

Having seen the situation unfold in the weeks prior, we’d already started planning for remote learning; but it was safe to say the global pandemic had thrown us in at the deep end.

Now that safety had been addressed, our first concern was completing the spring term so that current students could finish the courses they had been working so hard for.

Led by Bill Richardson, our team catch-up meetings were upped to twice a week, to talk through issues arising and ensure our students got the quality teaching that they deserve.

All students were notified that the final two lessons of spring term would be taught remotely and were provided with clear instructions for using the online learning tools, Moodle and Microsoft Teams. Course Coordinators worked closely with our tutors to offer training and technical support for running online classes.

Next we had to consider our approach to the summer term, due to start in a matter of weeks. We had to make a choice – postpone teaching or embrace the challenge. Encouraged by positive feedback from the spring term and a desire to fulfil our commitment to students, we decided to make it work.

Our marketing creative required a total overhaul to focus on remote learning. We communicated our new offering via emails, blogs and the City website. This was not without its complications. Our online message to students coincided with a University-wide content freeze of the City website, delaying our plans.  We pushed term back by one week to give us more time to prepare.

Grappling with issues of student IT logins, joining instructions and training for online platforms, there was a lot of work to be done. Forward thinking from the Short Courses Administration team meant that students were contacted to talk through any technical difficulties before the start of term. Computing courses presented their own set of challenges of software setup and configuration.  Our Computing Coordinator offered step-by step guidance and live email and phone support.

The first week of term went smoothly – largely due to the dedication and hard work from the team. We had 474 students confirmed on over 50 short courses. A welcomed consequence of these unexpected events was collaboration within the team – and beyond it. From Course Coordinators leaning on one-another to navigate through set up and planning; to Research & Enterprise’s Stefan Rankov, who particularly went out of his way to offer training support on Microsoft Teams.

Now into our fourth week of the summer term, we are undergoing a careful evaluation process, requesting feedback from students and tutors to identify any problems and adapt our approach accordingly.  We have some tweaks to make but so far, our response has been overwhelmingly positive from tutors and students alike.

 “I had a great time learning C with you. Specific thanks for putting together the virtual class, I found this super helpful and think I actually preferred the format.”

Benjamin Wade, C++ student

“The short courses team expeditiously responded to my training needs and were able to provide close guidance and support on adapting my classes to enable online seminars, chats, calls, screensharing, and file sharing, so that I could seamlessly move into virtual teaching.”

Nasreen Chaudhury, Law tutor

None of this would have been possible without our tutors’ admirable approach to change, their enthusiasm to teach and their wiliness to get to grips with online learning techniques. Even more wonderful is the willingness from tutors to share their best practice techniques and teaching experiences with one another.

Thank you to all of our staff and tutors for making our move to online teaching such a success.

How has your experience been of learning online with us? We’d love to hear, write your comments in the section below.

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