Feeds

Rogue character space tripped Scottish exam results

AQL caught out by Excel trying to be clever

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

A rogue space in the date field caused almost 30,000 Scottish students to get their exam results a day early, as Excel versions clashed and human checking fell down.

The texts telling students their Higher results (the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels) were supposed to go out Thursday morning, having been preloaded onto the automated systems at text-specialist AQL, as a CSV export of an Excel spreadsheet. The problem was a space which somehow got appended to the dates, causing Excel to export it as a text field, in quotes, which got rejected by the automated system which then substituted the default setting: the current date.

None of this is good. AQL, who've been doing this kind of thing for more than a decade and should know better, is suitably embarrassed and assures us it won't happen again.

The vast majority of AQL's clients, which number more than 30,000, manage their requirements through a direct interface with AQL's Web Services back end. From there, they can send messages and manage campaigns without human interaction or the possibility of incompatibilities.

But the annual sending of exam results, which AQL does as a freebie, doesn't really need a direct interface, so each year the company sends the Scottish Qualifications Authority a template spreadsheet to be populated and returned. This year that spreadsheet came back as an "xlsx" rather than an "xls", but (more importantly) it also came back with a space appended to every date field, causing Excel to assume it was text instead.

So Excel dropped quotation marks round the field when exporting it, which caused the import to disregard the field and replace it with a default date – today (that day) – so the messages were instantly sent out.

Fortunately the damage was minimal. Students got their results slightly early but as the clearing system wasn't operational they couldn't do much with the information other than celebrate/drown their sorrows 24 hours earlier than they might have done.

AQL tells us the import software has already been fixed, so the combination of events can't reoccur. They'll be checking all their processes to find out why the last-stage human read-through didn't pick up the error, and see where else their old systems might need updating.

It's easy to say it shouldn't have happened, but as our own Verity Stob explained last week the rusting of software applications is inevitable as assumptions made during development become invalid. We'd like to think our own applications would flag such an apparently obvious corruption of the imported data, but there's nothing like watching someone else get it wrong to focus the mind and make sure its not us the next time around. ®

Remote control for virtualized desktops

More from The Register

next story
Nexus 7 fandroids tell of salty taste after sucking on Google's Lollipop
Web giant looking into why version 5.0 of Android is crippling older slabs
Be real, Apple: In-app goodie grab games AREN'T FREE – EU
Cupertino stands down after Euro legal threats
Download alert: Nearly ALL top 100 Android, iOS paid apps hacked
Attack of the Clones? Yeah, but much, much scarier – report
SLURP! Flick your TONGUE around our LOLLIPOP – Google
Android 5 is coming – IF you're lucky enough to have the right gadget
Microsoft: Your Linux Docker containers are now OURS to command
New tool lets admins wrangle Linux apps from Windows
Bada-Bing! Mozilla flips Firefox to YAHOO! for search
Microsoft system will be the default for browser in US until 2020
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Website security in corporate America
Find out how you rank among other IT managers testing your website's vulnerabilities.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.