Adalene Shaïna June 9, 2021 Spreadsheet
Lester P. Goodbinder had suffered another agonizing week in Pittsburgh. The semi-annual audit he conducted at the Bourgeois Ball Bearing Factory stretched into five 14-hour days examining electronic spreadsheets on an archaic computer system installed in the early ‘80s. The equipment churned so abysmally he cleverly joked to himself it was powered by lazy hamsters on treadmills. Not only that, the accounting software loaded on the system was an early version of ”Abacus,” and only slightly faster than a key-punch adding machine but considerably slower than a hand-held calculator.
Given this data set imagine trying to find out which Fridays you were busy at an appointment at noon while your partner was also busy at an appointment at noon and the descriptions of both of your appointments contained the phrase down town. If you are not familiar with relational databases and SQL it might surprise you to know that the question can be answered by a single simple SQL query. The database and SQL don‘t have it all their own way however. Spreadsheets come in to their own for tasks that benefit from a visual representation. Traditionally databases do not provide a visual way to browse the data in tables without explicitly requesting data.
Microsoft Excel is a phenomenally powerful calculator. You can create spreadsheets with 10,000 lines of data and calculate subtotals instantly. Indeed, if you change your data, any totals will get automatically updated. Arguably that‘s not too impressive. If we have quarterly revenues of $1m, and we secure another $20k, we can update our subtotal without summing revenues from scratch. So it‘s more impressive that Excel can do the same thing with statistical functions. If you‘ve ever plotted a chart on Excel, you may be aware that you can add a best fit line. These best fit lines are calculated using a method known as regression. Basically, you have to calculate the distance of every single point from the line, and minimise the sum. The maths is a little more sophisticated but the key point is that, every time you change the data, you need to perform the analysis all over again.
Microsoft plans to have this program up soon and now Google is beta testing a similar situation, which would allow you to do essentially the same thing. Why is this good? Well, consider the Digital divide in the world and if everyone just had a terminal rather than a big hard drive with lots of expensive stuff on the computer then they can store all their information at one location. By doing this, the computers would actually be terminals and it would be very inexpensive to make them, meaning that everyone in the world could afford to have one and everyone in the world could be online and interconnected in a giant collective of humanity. There would be no one who would be without the Internet and this would bring the world closer together in a common cause.
At times, Lester became so furious his face radiated heat and fogged his glasses. When this happened, he yanked them from his puffy eyes and wiped the lenses with his tie. On this late Friday afternoon, however, Lester felt exhilarated. The printer regurgitated its last run of printouts and as he scanned the rows of figures he penciled in tick marks to indicate matches with numbers found in the corporate ledgers. The task complete for another 180 days, he removed his glasses, rubbed his aching eyeballs, and inhaled deeply to savor the fluttery feeling of excitement flooding his upper chest. Then, Lester logged off the computer, tapped the surge protector power switch with his toe, and shut down the wheezing system.
So why does data that inevitably finds its way into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet often suffer from the problems outlined above. The reasons are many. If the data is imported, it may have been sourced from a combination of other spreadsheets, databases, systems, reports, word documents, emails or web pages. If the data has been entered manually it may have been poorly done so by an inexperienced computer users such as administrative or junior staff with a lack of understanding for data structures. Excel is easy to use and widely accessible, so an inexperienced colleague can quite easily update your spreadsheet with a false sense of confidence and inadvertently enter new data incorrectly. And finally, unlike a fully functional software system, data entry in Excel generally has no automatic validating rules, unless carefully setup by the spreadsheet‘s creator.
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