Feeds

Rogue character space tripped Scottish exam results

AQL caught out by Excel trying to be clever

Boost IT visibility and business value

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. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Apple fanbois SCREAM as update BRICKS their Macbook Airs
Ragegasm spills over as firmware upgrade kills machines
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
Mozilla fixes CRITICAL security holes in Firefox, urges v31 upgrade
Misc memory hazards 'could be exploited' - and guess what, one's a Javascript vuln
NO MORE ALL CAPS and other pleasures of Visual Studio 14
Unpicking a packed preview that breaks down ASP.NET
Captain Kirk sets phaser to SLAUGHTER after trying new Facebook app
William Shatner less-than-impressed by Zuck's celebrity-only app
Cheer up, Nokia fans. It can start making mobes again in 18 months
The real winner of the Nokia sale is *drumroll* ... Nokia
EU dons gloves, pokes Google's deals with Android mobe makers
El Reg cops a squint at investigatory letters
Chrome browser has been DRAINING PC batteries for YEARS
Google is only now fixing ancient, energy-sapping bug
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.