by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone
Temper those party blues by joining us on Zoom this Wednesday 9th December at 7pm for a fabulous evening of readings from competition winners and the brilliant Novel Studio alumna, Deepa Anappara whose debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a New York Times Notable Book, one of Washington Post’s Best Thrillers and Mystery Books, and one of Timemagazine’s 2020 must-reads. It won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 and longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker Prize.
You won’t want to miss out and can register here.
Deepa will be joined by the following fantastic competition winners:
kind, delving intricately into the bliss and anxiety of being human. When she’s not writing she works in recruitment with a tech company, reads about social science and gender studies, cooks, walks in Victoria Park and plays piano. She’ll be reading her story ‘Fine.’
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
News media presented a series of explanations of what is believed that had gone wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If the user tries to use this new Excel functionality to import the CSV file she will be faced with the following error:
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.
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:
This 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.”.
In 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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.