Saving the World from Spreadsheets

Speaker:  Emery D Berger – Amherst, MA, United States
Topic(s):  Software Engineering and Programming


Spreadsheets are one of the most widely used programming environments, with roughly 1 billion users of Microsoft Excel alone. Unfortunately, spreadsheets make it all too easy to make errors that go unnoticed. These errors can have catastrophic consequences because spreadsheets are widely deployed in domains like finance and government. For instance, the infamous “London Whale” incident in 2012 cost JP Morgan approximately $2 billion; this was due in part to a spreadsheet programming error. A Harvard economic analysis used to support austerity measures imposed on Greece after the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. These austerity measures led to widespread protests and economic dislocation. The analysis was based on a single large spreadsheet, which was later found to contain numerous errors; when fixed, its conclusions were reversed.

Our research aims to dramatically reduce the risk of spreadsheet errors by developing algorithms that can effectively and accurately find them. This is challenging because traditional analyses for conventional programming languages do not apply in the spreadsheet domain (for example, spreadsheets don’t segfault). In this talk, I will present two systems we have developed that effectively find errors in spreadsheets: CheckCell uses a combination of program analysis and statistical analysis to automatically find likely data errors, while ExceLint combines program analysis with an information-theoretic approach to find likely formula errors. We implemented both of these as plugins for Microsoft Excel; both are principled, fast, and accurate (e.g., ExceLint’s median precision and recall are 1).

This talk consists of numerous animations, making a slide count somewhat irrelevant.
The talk is written to be delivered in English but the speaker can also present in Spanish.

Note: This talk has been presented at various venues, including the University of Washington:

About this Lecture

Number of Slides:  0
Duration:  60 minutes
Languages Available:  English
Last Updated: 

Request this Lecture

To request this particular lecture, please complete this online form.

Request a Tour

To request a tour with this speaker, please complete this online form.

All requests will be sent to ACM headquarters for review.