Scientists cash in on fixing spreadsheet errors

Goal-directed spreadsheet debugging could save billions of dollars, researchers say

Spreadsheets are a tool commonly used by businesses to track everything from payroll to accounts receivable. However, experts claim, there could be erroneous code, programming or formulae in spreadsheets that is costing businesses billions of dollars.

A newly-founded company in the U.S. has developed technology to reduce mistakes in spreadsheets, and potentially rake in some profits in the process. Dubbed "Goal-directed Debugging of Spreadsheets" -- "GoalDebug" for short - the technology aims to provide non-specialist programmers with the means to detect and correct programming mistakes simply by selecting from a shortlist of change suggestions.

In the U.S. alone, it has been estimated that about 100 million spreadsheets are created annually, which in turn might be managed by up to 60 million users. As most of these end-users tend to be non-technical staff with limited computer software programming knowledge, spreadsheets are notoriously prone to errors, warned Martin Erwig, an associate professor of computer science at Oregon State University in the U.S., and one of the creators of GoalDebug.

"Most users of spreadsheets are overconfident, they believe that the data is correct," he said. "But it has been observed that up to 90 percent of the spreadsheets being used have non-trivial errors in them. In fact, one auditor has said he never inspected a single spreadsheet during his entire career that was completely accurate."

"Spreadsheet debugging problems are huge; we believe there will be a significant demand for these products -- a large market," Erwig said. "We can't provide a dollar figure at this time, but our company is quite optimistic about this product."

The impact of spreadsheet errors could range from a few dollars misplaced in a personal travel budget, to delayed paychecks, to significant financial misrepresentations of budgets and stocks, which could affect many people, Erwig said.

For GoalDebug to correct a spreadsheet, it requires the user to first identify a suspicious-looking result, and plug in a more accurate figure. By identifying common errors made by humans, the program then suggests several programming mistakes that might have created the error, and what the correct approach might be.

Citing a recent study that found that software engineers spend up to 80 percent of their time testing and debugging programs, Erwig expects GoalDebug to appeal to non-technical spreadsheet users as it allows them to identify and repair errors by looking at a short list of possible problems instead of combing through hundreds or thousands of cells.

GoalDebug will be taken to market through a spin-off company called i5Logic, which was founded by Erwig and two colleagues last year. The current research prototype has been designed to work with Microsoft Excel; however, Erwig expects the program's underlying analysis techniques to apply to other spreadsheet systems as well.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Liz Tay

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?