Track and trace: please call in the IT experts

At the end of September, 15,841 cases of coronavirus, over an eight day period, were lost due to an IT glitch. The bug meant that there were long delays in contact tracing staff reaching people who may have been in close contact with some infected with coronavirus.

Public Health England needed to get coronavirus test results from test labs into its own database. What has transpired over the last week, is that it chose to use Excel to move the data. While experts argue that Excel is certainly not the best tool for the job, it is universally available. The real error of judgement is the fact that the file format it specified is one from 2003. Dating back to Excel 2003, the XLS file format sets a limit on the number of rows to 65,535.

Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s More or Less broadcast on October 7, Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London, said it was really disappointing that in September, Public Health England was still using a system it had put in place four months earlier.

Building on legacy IT

Earlier in the week, professor Dame Wendy Hall, chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute spoke on BBC Radio Four’s World at One show on the challenges of the track and trace system. Speaking as an IT expert, she said that the system should not have been built on a legacy IT.

While the government may have needed to get a system for track and trace up and running as quickly as possible during the height of the pandemic in May and June, clearly, such a system needs to be revisited. Does it continue to provide the most optimal approach? Are the assumptions made at the time it was originally developed, still valid?

Hall said she is frustrated that while tackling the virus has required medical and scientific expertise, the government has not done enough to engage with the IT experts who know about AI and data, to help design the systems that will support the population long term.

For Hall, building a complex IT system requires careful planning and governance. Unless the whole population is immune or receives a vaccine, everyone will need to live with coronavirus and track and trace. Without such careful considerations on how the system is taken forward, the government efforts to have a “world class” track and trace system will continue to be plagued by IT errors.

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