Category: Insights (page 1 of 2)

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 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.

An interview with Deepa Anappara

Ahead of the publication of her much-anticipated debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Novel Studio alumna Deepa Anappara took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the inspiration behind the book.

Emily Pedder: Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line? When did you know this was a story you wanted to tell? And how long did it take for you to feel you had the voice of the characters, particularly nine-year-old Jai?

Deepa Anappara

Deepa Anappara: The spark for the novel came from a spate of real-life disappearances of children in India, where I worked as a journalist for over eleven years. I used to write on education and human rights, as part of which I interviewed people who lived in impoverished neighbourhoods like the one in my novel. During that time, I used to hear stories of areas where as many as twenty or thirty children had disappeared over a span of two or three years; no effort had been made to find them because they were from poor families that had no voice or political power. I used to wonder what it was like for children to live in such neighbourhoods, knowing that they themselves could be snatched at any moment. How did they deal with that fear and uncertainty? How did they understand the unfairness and injustice they encountered in the world around them every day? Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is an attempt to answer those questions through fiction.

The children in my novel were very much inspired by the children I had interviewed as a reporter. Many of them were working, or weren’t able to study, because of their difficult financial or domestic circumstances. Despite this, they were often cheeky and witty, if not downright sarcastic. I drew from the memories of those interviews, and from the children I know in my life, to create the voices of my characters.

I first tried writing this novel in 2009, but set it aside, unsure whether I had the authority to write about a marginalised, neglected community. I returned to it in 2016. I had written several short stories by then with child narrators; I had also read a number of books and watched films with child narrators. Added to this were my own personal experiences of loss and uncertainty, and the greater understanding of mortality that perhaps comes with age – all these factors in some way gave me the permission to write Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, and shaped its narrative.

EP: Jai watches lots of reality TV cop shows and adopts the role of a detective in trying to find his missing classmate. This feels like a brilliant way in to telling this story. How did the cop show/detective strand come about?

Deepa: Jai’s interest in catching the criminal stems primarily from his own fears. He understands at some level, correctly, that as a child, he is in great danger. By constructing a story about being a detective, he is attempting to reclaim the agency he lacks in real life. It is also his way of dealing with a difficult situation.

Reality shows on TV are popular in India as it is elsewhere across the world, and the one about cops that Jai watches called Police Patrol is based on a similar, long-running TV show in India. It seemed natural that Jai would be inspired by what he watches on TV; popular culture in the form of TV and Hindi films do exert an influence on daily lives.

EP: You were previously an award-winning journalist in India. How difficult was it to make the leap from writing as a journalist to writing fiction?

Deepa: I didn’t have any formal grounding in either literature of writing, so I found it quite difficult to make that transition. I had to essentially learn how to write fiction, and I also had to learn how to read fiction much more closely. As a journalist, I had to be impartial and objective and relay opposing points of view to offer a balanced perspective. To write fiction, I had to teach myself how to write from a subjective point of view, to see the world only as a character sees it. But my experiences as a journalist were integral to writing Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. I often visited neighbourhoods like the one I have written about, and I am indebted to the people who lived there, who invited me to their homes and offered me tea and chatted with me. If not for the generosity they had shown me, there is no way I could have written this book.

EP: You’ve written lots of award-winning short fiction. What do you think are the main differences, apart from length, in writing novels as opposed to short stories? And which do you prefer?

Deepa: I love both forms; I love short stories for how they can distil an entire life into a few pages, for their focus, and I love novels for their expansiveness. There are writers who have experimented with both forms, who challenge what each form can do, and make it much more difficult to describe the differences. In writing a short story, I can often see its shape in its entirety, but this is much more difficult with a novel.

EP: What’s been the most useful thing about studying creative writing?

Deepa: I learnt everything about the craft through these courses. It also gave me a community; I met fellow students whose critiques I trusted, and whose writing I admired. I found critiquing their work, and listening to their feedback, incredibly useful. It also gave me the permission to write.

EP: Do you have an imagined reader in mind when you write?

Deepa: When I am writing, the attempt is to fully inhabit the character and their perspective. The question of readership is something to be considered during the editing stage, but the reader in my head even at that point is amorphous, or perhaps a version of myself.

EP: What are you working on now?

Deepa: I am studying for a Creative-Critical Writing PhD at the moment, as part of which I am working on a historical novel.

EP: Thank you so much, Deepa! We wish you every success with your novel.

Deepa’s novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, will be published by Chatto & Windus on January 30, 2020.

A partial of her novel won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award, and the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel.  It is now being translated into 17 languages. Deepa’s short fiction has won the Dastaan Award, the Asian Writer Short Story Prize, the second prize in the Bristol Short Story awards, the third prize in the Asham awards, and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where she is currently studying for a Creative-Critical Writing PhD on a CHASE doctoral fellowship.

Deepa is also a graduate of City’s Novel Studio programme, of which Emily Pedder is Course Director.

Applications for 2020 Novel Studio students will open on February 1st with a deadline of 24th April 2020.

How to Improve Presentation Skills

Success in business and in our personal lives does not depend solely on our message, but also on how we present the message. It can be the difference between clinching a promotion and being passed over, or between receiving investor funding and refusal. Presentation is an essential skill in business; at some point in our academic or professional lives, we will be expected to make a presentation to our peers, senior managers, or investors.

If the idea of delivering a presentation brings you out in a cold sweat, you are not alone. Somewhere between 20 and 75% of the population suffer from Glossophobia – a fear of public speaking, making this the most common phobia or fear in modern society.

The good news is that no one is born with the ability to present well – and with enough preparation and practice anyone can become a good presenter. It just requires a few simple training techniques and personal adjustments.

What are presentation skills?

Presentation is a soft skill, meaning it is transferable and relevant to any job. Like other soft skills, it has a broad definition with many elements:

  • Content: a speech, a Q&A, an interactive presentation, an informal talk, or PowerPoint presentation, a series of slides or photographs
  • Voice: The ability to speak clearly and with authority on a given subject, at a reasonable pace, and to a tone that engages the audience
  • Body language: How you present yourself during a presentation
  • Verbal language: Your choice of words also matters for audience engagement. Maximum engagement occurs when you reach out to as many participants as possible

Presentation is important as people with good presentation skills come across as reliable and dependable.

Improving your presentation skills

The benefits of being able to present well for career advancement and personal development are clear, so why do so many of us dread the idea of giving a presentation and why are so many presenters unable to captivate their audience? The key to overcoming your fears and delivering engaging presentations lies within two elements: practice and preparation. Mastering these will help to build confidence and skills needed to deliver well.

Here are some practical tips to help you to improve:

Step 1: Learn non-verbal communication

An academic study calculated that over half (55%) of what makes a presentation a good one came from non-verbal communication. Your audience’s attention will depend more on how you make your presentation than its content. Learn the need for a good posture, the right body language for the audience, open expression and an air of confidence. Acting confident, even when nervous inside, presents the air of authority and knowledge that you need to get through the presentation.

Step 2: Know your audience

You can only communicate properly when you know your audience. The content is appropriate, but so is how you communicate that relevant information. An audience of children will have different demands and expectations and require a different tone and body language than a meeting about business development. In turn, this audience will have different expectations from a panel of experts council watching a presentation that seeks to acquire funding for scientific research. Before the presentation, research and understand the expectations of the audience and build an approach with this in mind.

Step 3: Use good structure

The audience will need to know the content of the presentation, so start with an introduction. Divide the content into specific sections and use the introduction to explain how the presentation will be divided. Each attendee may have a different expectation and interest from the person next to them. The presentation should conclude with a summary of the main points acting as a memory aid. This is especially useful if there is a Q+A session.

Step 4: Rehearse

Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. Rehearsal is not about memorising one’s lines as it with an acting rehearsal, but about knowing the content enough to be able to carry on with the presentation if technology fails. Memorise the structure and the broad points, not the line by line account. It is also about adapting the presentation to the audience – emphasise points when they seem interested and hasten points when they appear bored. Plus, rehearsing improves the confidence in your tone and presentation skills, and helps you work out what does and does not work in the content before the final delivery.

Step 5: Ask for audience feedback

It is normally good policy to have a question and answer session at the end of a presentation. Sometimes it helps to gain feedback during the presentation. A good way to do this is to offer interactive elements such as a show of hands or setting aside time for ideas and suggestions. This will help develop your presentation skills for the future and adapt the current presentation to the audience. This feedback will be positive or negative and help you develop in the right direction.

Step 6: Record your presentation

It is easier to see what went wrong after the fact and from the point of view of an observer. Review the video days or weeks later when the presentation is no longer at the front of your mind. Your errors will be much clearer and you will be able to learn from those mistakes. When the presenter is mindful of what did and did not go well, they can tweak their presentation style and length of each section. They should also adapt and their general skills and the confidence that goes with it.

Presentation is about having a solid foundation in how to communicate the message, whatever that is. Confidence, the ability to present a speech and impress, are all teachable skills through a dedicated short course on presentation skills.

 

 

Children’s author Jennifer Gray’s top five books for kids this Christmas

By Jennifer Gray

As Christmas approaches, let short course alumna and children’s author Jennifer Gray guide you through her top 5 ‘must have’ cosy winter warmers for the festive season.

5. William at Christmas – William takes on Christmas with his usual blend of enthusiasm and outraged indignation. Hilarious fun which will make you eternally grateful for your own children at a time when you might otherwise not be.

4. Pippi Longstocking – Very happy in her own skin with a unique look and a keen sense of justice (not to mention enough strength to lift Santa and throw him twice round the moon), she’s very much a 21st century girl. Pippi’s stockings would look great on the mantelpiece and I can’t imagine her worrying too much about cooking! Good to have around at Christmas.

3. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – I don’t care what anyone else says. In my view stepping into a magical, snowy world through a wardrobe of fur coats has to be the best beginning to any children’s book, EVER. And you’ve got to admit it’s a very Christmassy story at whichever level you choose to read it.

2. Charlotte’s Webb – Christmas is a time for friends and family. Charlotte reminds us they can come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes from places you wouldn’t look. A lesson not just in Christmas spirit but also how to write a really original, touching, animal tale. And thank goodness Wilbur doesn’t end up on the dinner table.

1. Paddington – everyone’s favourite bear. I love him. (So do my children and the youngest is 18.) I can’t better Wendy Ide’s review of his film persona in The Guardian as ‘a slightly sticky beacon of hope for these dark and unsettled times’. Indeed. You can reassure the kids he’s just as good in the books. Guaranteed to make you feel Christmassy.

About the author

Jennifer Gray

Since studying at City on our Writing for Children and The Novel Studio, Jennifer has carved out a successful and prolific career as a children’s author. Her latest book in the Atticus Claw series (book 6) finds Atticus solving crimes in a Scottish castle where ‘danger lurks everywhere on the misty moor…’.

Her new series came out in January 2018 with Usborne and is called The Travels of Ermine. The latest Ermine adventure, The Big London Treasure Hunt, was published in June 2019.

Get ahead with your business writing

By Howard Walwyn

Almost everyone in their daily work needs to write clear, accurate business English, whether that is in the form of emails, letters, reports, minutes, digital copy, marketing materials, technical manuals or other formats. Even tweets are increasingly used as a marketing tool for both Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer communications.

Yet not everyone is confident that their business writing skills are up to the standard they would like. Many people working in communications departments, HR or marketing teams, regardless of their native language, strive to write refined and polished business copy.

Similarly people working in IT or quantitative fields are often less comfortable writing business English than they are dealing with code or numbers and see the need to obtain specific training in business writing skills, to help them reach an even better standard of written English.

City, University of London’s Writing for Business short course gives hands-on practical training in the principles of clear business English and how to write good business copy, whether it’s an article, a press release, a CV, a product review or a letter or email. It also covers some of the wider aspects of being a writer, such as research and planning, interviewing, promotion and marketing; and legal and editorial topics. The course explains how the key principles behind writing clear business English – such as brevity, clarity and consistency – are the same, whatever the length and format of the piece you are writing.

Due to high demand, we are delighted to be offering the course on two nights of the week.

On Tuesday evenings the Writing for Business course is taught by Howard Walwyn who has spent 30 years writing and editing copy in the financial sector, focusing mainly on risk and regulatory content. He now uses that experience, alongside his degrees in English Language & Literature and Economics, to help clients and students write clear business English – both in the financial sector and in other areas of business.

Every Thursday, the course is taught by Maggie Richards, a freelance journalist and copywriter with 20 years’ experience writing for the likes of The Guardian and The Times and working with all kinds of businesses from sole traders to global giants, such as Harrods and Marks & Spencer.

Writing for Business is a 10-week short course starting in October.

Who Says Crime Doesn’t Pay?

By Novel Studio Course Director Emily Pedder

Greg Keen is an alumnus of The Novel Studio course at City, University of London. He completed his debut novel in between stints working as a pitch consultant and a media trainer, all based in Soho. In 2015 Soho Dead won the CWA Debut Dagger. We caught up with him to find out more about his crime series.

EP: Your novel reveals some brilliantly unsavoury characters. Were they based on people you’ve met…?

GK: I’ve met a few people who share their characteristics but no one who is absolutely like them. Bella – the sex club owner – is probably closest to someone I know.

EP: Your novel is set mostly in Soho, a place you seem to know intimately. Can you tell us about your relationship to the place?

GK: I got my first job there after university. Over the next ten years the company re-located four times, always in Soho. During that period I frequented most of the pubs and quite a few members clubs when members clubs meant a dimly lit cellar bar. Few of these remain but The New Evaristo (aka Trisha’s) in Greek Street is still going strong.

EP: Which crime writers have influenced you?

GK: Mark Timlin’s Sharman series primarily. I love Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May books and Colin Bateman’s Dan Starkey novels are wonderfully dark and funny.

EP: What kind of research did you do for the book?

GK: Part of the novel is set in the seventies. Mostly it was a matter of researching what was where in Soho in that period and which drinks and cigarette brands were available etc.

EP: “His pecs needed a training bra and his gut seeped like jelly from a dodgy mould…” Humour is rife in your book. Do you see it as an important element in the crime writing you’re interested in producing?

GK: To a point. Soho Dead began life primarily as a comic novel and was rejected by agent after agent as not having a big enough crime element. Over the next four drafts (complete re-writes basically) I bumped this up. The best advice I received was in a workshop when someone commented that the humour worked when it came from the situation and not when I was trying to insert gags. If any of my three review readers think something isn’t funny then out it comes. But the short answer to your question is that noir and humour often work well together.

EP: The novel is intricately plotted with lots of satisfying sub-plots and red herrings. How did you approach the plotting of the book?

GK: Thank you. I have about 70% worked out up-front and the rest is found while writing and re-drafting.

EP: The ending of the book is nicely unpredictable. Did you have an alternate ending in mind at any point, or were you always clear where the book was going?

GK: Some crime writers only find out who committed the crime when they reach its conclusion. I find this amazing and always knew who did it and why.

EP: What are you working on next?

GK: I’m about to begin structural edits on Soho Ghosts, which is the second in the series and out next year.

EP: Have you given up the day job?!

GK: As I freelance it’s not quite that dramatic for me. I have decreased my hours to focus more on writing though.

Thanks to Greg Keen and all the best with his fantastic novel Soho Dead and upcoming Soho Ghosts.

Rewriting History: How Historical Fiction Works

By Emily Pedder

From Brooklyn to Wolf Hall, historical fiction is enjoying a boom moment. But how do you go about writing an historical novel? How ‘true’ to the past should a novelist be? And what can historical novels tell us about the world we are living in today? Last month we were given the insider’s guide to all this and more by two of City short courses’ star alumni: Anna Mazzola, author of The Unseeing, out with Tinder Press next month and Melissa Bailey, author of The Medici Mirror and Beyond The Sea, Arrow Press.

Both authors clearly shared a passion for research and saw it as one of the most absorbing parts of the historical novel writing. Both were also clear that the story had to take precedence: it didn’t matter how much research had been done, or how historically accurate the depiction of period might be, if the story wasn’t working the novelist had to go back to the drawing board.

There was also broad agreement on other characteristics of writing historical fiction. Anna spoke of the importance of giving voice to the voiceless and of uncovering voices from the past that hadn’t been heard before. Melissa highlighted the enjoyable difficulty in trying to imagine what her characters were thinking and feeling, and then imagining what was different about the way those characters might have perceived things at that time.

Well attended and with positive feedback after the event, this writing short course event gave us all food for thought. As novelist Andrew Miller put it, “at its best, historical fiction is never a turning away from the now but one of the ways in which our experience of the contemporary is revived.” Thank you to Anna and Melissa for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. For more info on our short courses, go to our website or follow us on twitter @cityshortcourses. For more on the authors and their books visit: Anna Mazzola and Melissa Bailey.

 

Digital training and the digital skills gap

by Dionisios Dimakopoulos

City Short Courses, part of City, University of London, worked with London digital agency MintTwist to create a study analysing the digital skills gap.

The study surveyed over 100 professionals who studied a digital marketing related short course with a goal to understanding:

  • Why they are seeking additional digital marketing training
  • Issues they are currently facing
  • What they hope to attain from studying a digital marketing short course at City, University of London.

We surveyed City Short Course students from 2007 – 2015. The group consisted of marketing professionals within SEO, content, social, advertising, web design and development.

“The biggest challenge in my industry is hitting the right digital marketing channels and maintaining our individuality against our competitors”

Edward Carter, SEO Manager, industry: Engineering and Manufacturing

The survey identified three key elements professionals listed as instrumental in them completing a digital marketing short course.

  • Digital’s constant state of change and evolution
  • The online competition
  • Training required to upskill internal resource on digital

Biggest issues for your company:

  • 15% – competitors
  • 19% – digital change
  • 26% – training, skills and internal resources

Biggest issues for your industry:

  • 16% – competitors
  • 16% – digital change
  • 6% – training, skills and internal resources

Find out more about short courses in digital marketing at City, University of London.

How to build a platform and strategy for your writing that engages readers

By Emily Pedder

Advances in digital technology have brought unparalleled opportunities for modern authors. Writers can now publish, promote and market their work in unforeseen ways. But how do you navigate this new terrain? And how do writers create that elusive ‘platform’ which builds interest and readers?

Last month, as part of Inside Out Festival, City short courses hosted an evening chaired by Novel Studio tutor and writer Emily Midorikawa to look at the reality of the modern publishing world and what is required of an author aside from the writing.

With the help of three industry experts: publishing consultant Heather O’Connell, City tutor and writer Katy Darby, and best-selling novelist Mark Edwards, the audience were introduced to topics such as using social media as an author; building an author ‘brand’; finding target readers; negotiating publishing options, from indy to traditional and engaging with readers both online and in the real world.

Perhaps Mark Edwards’ colourful pie chart,  ‘what do authors do all day’, has the final word on what it takes to be an authorpreneur. According to Mark, ‘writing’ takes up 35% of his day, while ‘checking amazon’ uses 10%, ‘admin’ 30%, and ‘social networking’ 15%. Good to hear, then, that there was still room in the day for the writer’s all important ‘staring into space’ time, at 10%.

With thanks to all our speakers and guests for a great evening.

For more events like these don’t forget to follow our updates on @cityshortcourses or email us at shortcourses@city.ac.uk to be added to our mailing list.

 

Older posts

© 2020 City Short Courses

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Skip to toolbar