Scientists cash in on fixing spreadsheet errors

01. Juni 2007
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 nonspecialized programmers with the means to detect and correct programming mistakes simply by selecting from a short-list 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 nontechnical 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 nontrivial 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.

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