Too many statistics? The National Statistics site runs out of memory

 by Martin Belam, 27 March 2007

Whilst I was doing the research over the last few weeks for my articles about the Biased BBC blog, I came across quite a few usability and technical gremlins on the web.

(Not least of which was the Haloscan comments system used by Biased BBC itself. Mirroring the "technical difficulties" it is claimed often mysteriously affect BBC Have Your Say debates if the tide of comments isn't going in the direction the BBC's 'bias' would prefer, I found that Haloscan ate and failed to publish several lengthy, erudite, well-written submissions I was trying to make there ;-) )

Perhaps, though, the most perplexing technical hitch on the web occured when I was trying to find out from the National Statistics site the population numbers of various religious groupings in the last UK census. On the whole I find the site to be easy to navigate and to use, but when I was trying to get these figures I tried to use search and encountered an abrupt dead-end.

Searching for "religion" generated the following error message:

CCI detected an error whilst processing your request.

Error: -2147217900 [Microsoft][ODBC SQL Server Driver][SQL Server]There is insufficient system memory to run this query.. in SearchRes.ASP: ErrorState = Failed to search.

Now, apart from immediately thinking that measuring whether there was sufficient system memory to run search queries ought to be the kind of thing being handled by some automatic monitoring system, this did seem to be a bit of information overkill to deliver on the web front-end of the search application. Frankly, a simple "Sorry, the system is unavailable at the moment" would probably have sufficed, and I wouldn't have ended up blogging about it.

At Sony NetServices we try (but don't always succeed) to make system errors degrade gracefully in front of users. In fact we have an elegant error state wireframe for one system which describes our ideal error message as:

Polite header with non-jargon text

Verbose description of general problem.

At vero eos et accusamus et iusto odio dignissimos ducimus qui blanditiis praesentium voluptatum blanditiis praesentium voluptatum

Where to get more information link.

[Action button]

Actually though, it was the line underneath the National Statistics office's error meassage that really grabbed my attention:

Please record the error and notify National Statistics

So, let me get this straight, you've delivered me a 10 figure error code on screen instead of the search results I wanted, and you are now asking me to take the time to report that you have "insufficient system memory"?

Via a simple mailto: link?

And you haven't even added ?subject=<error_code_plus_description> to it, so that I have to type out all of the details myself?

Come on...

...I mean, you are the National Statistics office. Can't you count your own error messages?

1 Comment

In the superb "Analysis" programme of this last week on BBC 4 regarding statistics, came the comment that the government attempted to set targets not knowing that the information was not available.
Various euphemistic comments were made by ministers explaing the situation such as "the information is not ready for delivery as yet"
This programme is well worth a listen.

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