Oh, Those Pesky Numbers

from the human-error dept

Numbers are important. While computers are good with numbers, humans still seem to have problems with them, and despite our use of computers, it seems we’re still not able to come up with foolproof ways to stop people from making stupid numerical mistakes. It appears that some fairly costly number typos are coming back to haunt some organizations. While some numerical errors just lead to humorous results, a misprint of a winning lottery ticket in a NY newspaper and the incorrect voting phone number flashing on the screen on a recent American Idol are causing all sorts of problems — and making some wonder how such mistakes can happen. The answer, it appears, is that they always happen. We’re just not that good with number and tend to mess them up. And either because of, or in spite of, the growing use of computers, it often seems that numbers are more common than ever in our lives — and yet they’re just as easy to mess up. As the article notes, though, as we enter tax season, it pays to remember that your friendly IRS agent isn’t always so forgiving.

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Comments on “Oh, Those Pesky Numbers”

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TJ says:

Double entry

The solution for this type of problem is older than me: Double data entry, ideally by two different people. When I started with an employer in the early 90s they were finally ready to retire a data entry system that fed the mainframe. Two terminals from the 1960s, where two different operators keyed the same data. The second operator couldn’t submit a form until their data matched the input of the first, with a method for the first to change their entry if it was wrong. [They replaced it with similar software for networked PCs, only to be phased out within a decade by direct customer web entry.]

If something is as critical as a phone number for publishing, or lottery numbers, software could require that it be entered multiple times prior to publication, ideally under different user IDs. Unless the source of the data were flawed in some way, errors would be much less likely. Even double entry by the same person would help, and we do this almost daily with passwords. [The fact we then promptly forget them doesn’t lessen the value of double entry verification.]

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