Graphical User Interfaces were a mistake but you can still make things right

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Some weeks ago I tweeted this:

you might think that I tweeted this as an unfunny joke, but it’s not. GUIs were one of the worst things to happen for statisticians. Clickable interfaces for data analysis is probably one of the greatest source of mistakes and errors in data processing, very likely costing many millions to companies worldwide and is a source of constant embarassment when mistakes happen which cost the reputation, and money, of institutions or people.

Remember the infamous Excel mistake by Reinhard and Rogoff? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can get up to speed by reading this. I think the most interesting sentence is this:

The most serious was that, in their Excel spreadsheet, Reinhart and Rogoff had not selected the entire row when averaging growth figures: they omitted data from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark.

This is a typical mistake that happens when a mouse is used to select data in a GUI, instead of typing whatever you need in a scripting language. Many other mistakes like that happen, and they remain hidden, potentially for years, or go unreported.

Recently there was another Excel-related problem in England where positive Covid tests got lost. For some obscure reason, the raw data, which was encoded in a CSV file, got converted into an Excel spreadsheet, most likely for further analysis. The problem is that the format that was used was the now obsolete XLS format, instead of the latest XLSX format, which can handle millions of rows. Because the data was converted in the XLS format, up to 15841 cases were lost. You can get all the details from this BBC article. Again, not entirely Excel’s fault, as it was misused. The problem is that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and Excel is that data analytics hammer. So to the uncultured, everything looks like an Excel problem.

Now don’t misunderstand me; I’m not blaming Excel specifically, or any other specific GUI application for this. In many cases, the problem lies between the keyboard and the chair. But GUI applications have a part of responsibility, as they allow users to implement GUI-based workflows. I think that complex GUI based workflows were an unintended consequence of developing GUIs. Who could have expected, 40 years ago, that office jobs would evolve so much and that they would require such complex workflows to generate an output? Consider the life-cycle of a shared Excel file in your typical run-of-the-mill financial advisory firm. In many cases, it starts with an already existing file that was made for another client and that is now used as a starting point. The first thing to do, is to assign a poor junior to update the file and adapt it for the current assignment. He or she will spend hours trying to reverse engineer this Excel file and then update it. This file will at some point go to more senior members that will continue working on it, until it gets send off for review to a manager. This manager, already overworked and with little time between meetings to review the file correctly, just gives it a cursory glance and might find some mistakes here and there. As a review method, colours and comments will be used. The file goes back for a round of updates and reviews. As time goes by, and as the file gets more and more complex, it starts to become impossible to manage and review properly. It eventually gets used to give advice to a client, which might be totally wrong, because just as in the case of Reinhard and Rogoff, someone, at some point, somewhere, did not select the right cells for the right formula. Good luck ever finding this mistake, and who did it. During my consulting years, I have been involved with very, very, big clients that were completely overwhelmed because all their workflows were GUI based. They had been working like that for years, and kept recruiting highly educated people en masse just to manage Excel and Word files. They were looking for a magic, AI-based solution, because in their minds, if AIs could drive fricking cars, they should also be able to edit and send Excel files around for review. Well, we’re not quite there yet, so we told them, after our review of their processes and data sources (which in many cases were Excel AND Word files), that what they needed was for their company to go through an in-depth optimisation process “journey”. They weren’t interested so they kept hiring very intelligent people to be office drones. I don’t think that business model can remain sustainable.

Now how much are situations like that the fault of Excel and how much personal responsibility do the people involved have? I don’t know, but my point is that if, by magic, GUIs were made to disappear, problems like that would also not exist. The reason is that if you’re forced to write code to reach the results you want, you avoid a lot of these pitfalls I just described. Working with scripts and the command line forces a discipline unto you; you cannot be lazy and click around. For example, reverse engineering a source code file is much easier that a finished Excel spreadsheet. Even poorly written and undocumented code is always much better than an Excel spreadsheet. If you throw a version control system in the mix, you have the whole history of the file and the ability to know exactly what happened and when. Add unit tests on the pile, and you start to get something that is very robust, transparent, and much easier to audit.

“But Bruno, not everyone is a programmer!” I hear you scream at your monitor.

My point, again, is that if GUIs did not exist, people would have enough knowledge of these tools to be able to work. What other choice would they have?

Of course, GUIs have been invented, and they’re going nowhere. So what can you do?

When it comes to statistics and data analysis/processing, you can at least not be part of the problem and avoid using Excel altogether. If we go back to our previous scenario from the financial advisory firm, the first step, which consisted in reverse engineering an Excel file, can be done using {tidyxl}. Let’s take a quick look; the spreadsheet I used as the header image for this blog post comes from the Enron corpus , which is mostly know for being a database of over 600000 emails from the US company Enron. But it also contains spreadsheets, which are delightful. You can download the one from the picture here (8mb xlsx warning). Opening it in your usual spreadsheet application will probably cause your heart rate to increase to dangerous levels, so avoid that. Instead, let’s take a look at what {tidyxl} does with it:

library(tidyxl)
## Warning: package 'tidyxl' was built under R version 4.0.3
library(tidyverse)
## ── Attaching packages ─────────────────────────────────────── tidyverse 1.3.0 ──
## ✔ ggplot2 3.3.2     ✔ purrr   0.3.4
## ✔ tibble  3.0.1     ✔ dplyr   1.0.0
## ✔ tidyr   1.1.0     ✔ stringr 1.4.0
## ✔ readr   1.3.1     ✔ forcats 0.5.0
## ── Conflicts ────────────────────────────────────────── tidyverse_conflicts() ──
## ✖ dplyr::filter() masks stats::filter()
## ✖ dplyr::lag()    masks stats::lag()
dutch_quigley_9378 <- xlsx_cells("~/six_to/spreadsheets/dutch_quigley__9378__modeldutch.xlsx")


head(dutch_quigley_9378)
## # A tibble: 6 x 21
##   sheet address   row   col is_blank data_type error logical numeric
##                        
## 1 Swap… A1          1     1 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## 2 Swap… D2          2     4 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## 3 Swap… E2          2     5 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## 4 Swap… F2          2     6 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## 5 Swap… G2          2     7 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## 6 Swap… D3          3     4 FALSE    character   NA           NA
## # … with 12 more variables: date , character ,
## #   character_formatted , formula , is_array ,
## #   formula_ref , formula_group , comment , height ,
## #   width , style_format , local_format_id 

That whole Excel workbook is inside a neat data frame. Imagine that you want to quickly know where all the formulas are:

dutch_quigley_9378 %>%
  filter(!is.na(formula)) %>%
  count(sheet, address)
## # A tibble: 18,776 x 3
##    sheet address     n
##        
##  1 Front B22         1
##  2 Front C13         1
##  3 Front C2          1
##  4 Front C22         1
##  5 Front C25         1
##  6 Front C26         1
##  7 Front C27         1
##  8 Front C28         1
##  9 Front C30         1
## 10 Front C31         1
## # … with 18,766 more rows

With the code above, you can quickly find, for each sheet, where the formulas are. This workbook contains 18776 formulas. If Hell is a real place, it’s probably an office building full of cubicles where you’ll sit for eternity looking at these spreadsheets and trying to make sense of them.

Now imagine that you’d like to know what these formulas are, let’s say, for the Swap sheet:

dutch_quigley_9378 %>%
  filter(sheet == "Swap", !is.na(formula)) %>%
  select(address, formula)
## # A tibble: 6,773 x 2
##    address formula           
##                    
##  1 F1      DAY(EOMONTH(G1,0))
##  2 G1      A11               
##  3 E2      BE9               
##  4 A3      BQ5               
##  5 E3      BF9               
##  6 F3      SUM(G3:K3)        
##  7 H3      $F$1*H2           
##  8 I3      $F$1*I2           
##  9 J3      $F$1*J2           
## 10 K3      $F$1*K2           
## # … with 6,763 more rows

Brilliant! Maybe you’re interested to find all the "SUM" formulas? Easy!

dutch_quigley_9378 %>%
  filter(sheet == "Swap", !is.na(formula)) %>%
  filter(grepl("SUM", formula)) %>%
  select(address, formula)
## # A tibble: 31 x 2
##    address formula        
##                 
##  1 F3      SUM(G3:K3)     
##  2 E4      SUM(D11:D309)  
##  3 F5      SUM(G5:K5)     
##  4 E6      SUM(F6:H6)     
##  5 BF8     SUM(BF11:BF242)
##  6 B9      SUM(B47:B294)  
##  7 AB9     SUM(AB11:AB253)
##  8 AC9     SUM(AC11:AC253)
##  9 AD9     SUM(AD11:AD253)
## 10 AE9     SUM(AE11:AE253)
## # … with 21 more rows

You get the idea. There are many more things that you can extract such as the formatting, the contents of the cells, the comments (and where to find them) and much, much more. This will make making sense of a complex Excel file a breeze.

The other thing that you can also do, once you’re done understanding this monster Excel file, is not to perform the analysis inside Excel. Don’t fall into the temptation of continuing this bad habit. As one on the data experts in your team/company, you have a responsibility to bring the light to your colleagues. Be their Prometheus and decouple the data from the code. Let the data be in Excel, but write all the required code to create whatever is expected from you inside R. You can then export your finalized results back to Excel if needed. If management tells you to do it in Excel, tell them that you’re the professional statistician/data scientist, and that they shouldn’t tell you how to do your job. Granted, this is not always possible, but you should plead your case as much as possible. In general, a good manager will be all ears if you explain that not using GUIs like Excel makes it easier to spot and correct mistakes, with the added benefit of being much easily audited and with huge time savings in the long run. This is of course easier for completely new projects, and if you have an open-minded manager. If you’re the manager, then you should ask your IT department to uninstall Excel from your team member’s computers.

Be brave, and ditch the GUI.

Hope you enjoyed! If you found this blog post useful, you might want to follow me on twitter for blog post updates and buy me an espresso or paypal.me, or buy my ebook on Leanpub. You can also watch my videos on youtube. So much content for you to consoom!

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