Chapter 2 Basic data cleaning with Excel

Excel is the most commonly-used example of a spreadsheet, a software program designed for the tabulation, analysis, and display of data. Its main competitors include Google Sheets and Apple Numbers. It is widely used in business and government, so good Excel skills are valuable in the labour market.

Chapter goals

In this chapter we will learn how to:

  • Use basic Excel terminology and concepts including:
    • Workbooks, worksheets, and cells
    • Cell contents and display format
    • Cell ranges
    • Relative and absolute cell addresses
    • Numeric, text, date, and logical data tpes
  • Use Excel tools to view data, including:
    • Sorting
    • Filtering
    • Freezing panes
    • Changing cell size
  • Use Excel tools to enter new data and “clean” existing data, including
    • Fill and series
    • Formulas
    • Functions
    • Number formats
  • Follow good data management practices
    • Practice data documentation and version control
    • Identify the characteristics of tidy data

2.1 A quick tour of Excel

Many of you have probably used Excel before, but there are many features you are probably not yet familiar with. We will start by going over some of its basic characteristics and terminology.

2.1.1 Terminology and interface

Start Excel. Your screen should look something like this: Excel screenshot

When giving instructions, I will refer to various elements of Excel’s user interface by name. You may have been using these elements for years without ever knowing their names, so I will list them here:

  • The menu bar is at the top of the screen. It shows a list of options: File Home Insert Draw ....
  • The ribbon is below the menu bar It is a row of buttons.
    • The ribbon has buttons for performing simple actions.
    • The buttons are grouped by function, for example there is a group called “Clipboard” and another called “Font”.
      • Within each function group, there is usually a little icon in the lower-right corner that you can click on to access additional options.
    • If your ribbon is not visible:
      • You can make it visible by clicking “Home” (or anything else) on the menu bar.
      • Once you have made the ribbon visible, you can keep it visible by clicking on the little thumbtack icon in its lower right corner.
    • The contents of the ribbon depend on the currently-active menu bar option (usually but not always Home).
      • I will assume that Home is the currently-active option; if it isn’t you can just click on Home to make it the currently-active option.
  • The formula bar is just below the ribbon. the long white box
    • It shows the contents of the current cell.
    • You can type in it to change the contents of the current cell.
  • The insert function button is to the left of the formula bar. fx
    • We will learn to use this later.
  • Most of the screen displays a grid of cells that is called a spreadsheet or worksheet: cell grid
    • Columns are identified by letter.
    • Rows are identified by number.
    • Cells are identified by coumn and row. For example, the cell in column A, row 2 is called cell A2.
  • Below the worksheet is a row of tabs:
    • You can click on a tab to switch to that worksheet.
    • You can double-click on a tab to change its name.
    • You can click on the “+” button to add a new worksheet.
  • An Excel file is called a workbook.
    • Each workbook contains one or more worksheets.
    • in Windows, Excel files normally have the .xlsx extension.
    • Older files sometimes have the .xls extension.

2.1.2 Tidy data

Download the data file at and open it in Excel. Excel screenshot This data file provides the main employment statistics for Canadian provinces in November 2020.

Economics review: Employment statistics

Employment statistics were covered in ECON 105.

  • These statistics are reported monthly by Statistics Canada and are based on the Labour Force Survey (LFS), a monthly survey of the civilian, non-institutionalized, working-age population of Canada.
    • “civilian” excludes those on active military duty
    • “non-institutionalized” excludes people in prison, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.
    • “working-age” excludes those under age 15
    • People living on reserve are also not covered by the LFS
  • The LFS population is grouped into three categories:
    • Employed: worked for pay or profit in the previous week, or had a job and was absent (e.g. due to illness or vacation).
    • Unemployed: not employed in the previous week, but either looking for work, on temporary layoff, or had a job to start within the next four weeks.
    • Not in the labour force: everyone else. This includes retirees, full-time students who aren’t working for pay, and anyone else who is neither working nor looking for work.
  • These basic counts are then used to calculate several other statistics
    • The labour force is the total count of those who are employed or unemployed.
    • The labour force participation rate is the proportion or percentage of the population that is in the labour force. The Canadian LFP rate is typically around 65%.
    • The unemployment rate is the proportion of the labour force that is unemployed. The Canadian unemployment rate is typically 5-10%.

The unemployment rate and LFP rate are key indicators of labour market conditions. A higher-than-usual unemployment rate means that workers are having difficulty finding work, and a lower-than-usual LPF rate means that some workers have stopped looking for work.

The data in this file takes the form of what data scientists sometimes call tidy data. Tidy data takes a simple and convenient format:

  • Data is arranged in one or more simple rectangular grids or tables.
    • In Excel, tables should always start in cell A1.
  • Each column in a table represents a distinct variable or attribute.
    • The top row should give an informative and unique name for each variable.
    • In Excel, the variable names are usually in boldface.
  • Each row in a table represents a distinct observation or case.
    • The first column should provide a unique identifier for each observation.
  • All observations in a table come from the same unit of observation
    • In this example, the unit of observation is the Canadian province. That is, each row represents a different province.
    • If we have data at another unit of observation (for example, if we have data on individual cities, or for Canada as a whole), that data should should be in another table.
  • The order in which observations are listed is irrelevant to the analysis.
    • In this example, the observations are listed in alphabetical order. But we could re-order it by population without changing the meaning of any of the data.
    • If there is a natural ordering of the data, that ordering should be expressed in a variable. For example, a data set on annual GDP should not just be a list of GDP values that happens to be ordered by year. It should also include a variable for the year.

To see what messy data looks like, click on the Raw data tab at the bottom of the page. This worksheet shows the original data set as I originally downloaded it from Statistics Canada. Excel screenshot This data set is messy in many ways - it does not have a simple tabular form starting in cell A1, the headings have multiple rows, and the table has variables in rows and observations in columns.

If we are lucky, our data is already tidy. But most data sources are messy, and we will often need to “clean” our data (convert from a messy to a tidy format) before starting our analysis. In many projects, the data cleaning is a bigger job than the data analysis.

2.1.3 Sorting

We will start by learning a few tools for viewing our data, starting with sorting.

The original data are in alphabetical order by province name. But suppose we wanted it to ordered by population (with the highest populations on top) instead. Here’s all we need to do:

  1. Select any cell in the Population column.
  2. Select Home > Sort and Filter > Sort Largest to Smallest.

As you can see, the data set is now sorted by population. We can follow similar steps to put the data set back in alphabetical order:

  1. Select any cell in the Province column.
  2. Select Home > Sort and Filter > Sort A to Z.

Notice that Excel can tell whether a column contains numbers or text, and will sort accordingly.

Advanced options

  • You can sort in ascending or descending order
  • You can sort on multiple columns by selecting the “Custom sort” option.

2.1.4 Filtering

We will often want to look at a particular subgroup of observations. This is called filtering.

Suppose we only want to see data for larger provinces. Here’s what we can do:

  1. Select Home > Sort and Filter > Filter. If you look at the column headers in your sheet you will see that they have become drop-down boxes.
  2. Click on the drop-down box for Population, then select Number filters > Greater Than...
  3. Enter one million (1000000) in the box and select OK.

At this point, only the provinces with at least one million residents appear in the table. Don’t worry, the other ones haven’t gone anywhere.

We can undo the filter and remove the drop-down boxes by selecting Home > Sort and Filter > Filter.

Advanced options

  • You can filter on more complex criteria.
  • You can combine sorting and filtering.

2.1.5 Freezing panes

Go down to row 50 or so in your worksheet. Notice that you can’t see the variable names in row 1 any more. This is fine for our current data set, but it would be a problem if we had more than a few rows.

The solution to this problem is to freeze panes, which means to keep some rows and/or columns visible regardless of which cell the cursor is in.

  1. Go back to cell A1.
  2. Select View > Freeze Panes > Freeze Top Row.

Now go back down to row 50 or so. You will see that the top row is still displayed and you can see the variable names.

To undo this, select View > Freeze Panes > Unfreeze Panes.

Advanced options

  • You can also freeze the first column
  • You can freeze any number of rows and columns.

2.1.6 Changing cell size

You may notice that cell B8 (Ontario population) appears to contain “######” rather than a number. The cause of this problem is that the cell is not wide enough to display the correct number. So let’s make it wider.

We have several options for doing this:

  • From the menu: Select any cell in column B, and then select Home > Format > Cell Width.... A dialog box will appear that allows you to enter your preferred width. Try 10.
  • With the mouse: Move your cursor to the line between column headers B and C until the cursor looks like this: cursor. Click on the mouse and drag the cursor to resize the column.
  • Auto-fit (this is what I usually do): Move your cursor to the line between column headers B and C, and double-click. The column width will automatically adjust to fit the data.

You can follow similar procedures to adjust the row height.

2.2 Cleaning data

We are now ready to start cleaning our data. Before we do that, we should make a working copy of our data set. Save your Excel workbook, giving it a different name from the name of the original data file. This will allow us to make changes while preserving the original file with its original contents and name.

We will now add several variables to our working data set. Save the file after adding each variable so that you don’t lose your work.

2.2.1 Entering new data

The simplest way to add variables to an Excel table is by entering data directly. Manual data entry

We will start by simply typing in some new data.

The Province column gives the name of each person’s province of residence. It might be more convenient to use the two-letter postal abbreviation instead, so let’s add that as a new variable. Here’s the table of abbreviations for your reference:

Province or Territory ProvAbb
Alberta AB
British Columbia BC
Manitoba MB
New Brunswick NB
Newfoundland and Labrador NL
Northwest Territories NT
Nova Scotia NS
Nunavut NU
Ontario ON
Prince Edward Island PE
Quebec QC
Saskatchewan SK
Yukon YT

So let’s add our variable:

  1. Enter “ProvAbb” in cell E1 to name the variable.
  2. Fill in cells E2:E11 with the correct postal abbreviation. Using Fill

Let’s add a variable indicating which month and year these particular observations describe (November 2020).

  1. Enter “MonthYr” in cell F1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter “11/20” in cell F2.
    • You may notice that Excel displays the date differently from how you entered it - on my computer it displays as Nov-20. We will talk more later about how Excel handles dates.

Now we could enter the exact same date in cells F3:F11, but we can save ourselves some time by using Excel’s fill features.

  1. Select cells F2:F11.
  2. Select Home > Fill > Down.

As you can see, Excel fills in all selected cells with the value in the top cell. Using Series

Ideally, one of the variables in our table serves as a unique identifier for observations. A unique identifier (ID) is a text or numeric (integer) variable that takes on a different value for each observation.

In our data set, the province name can be used as a unique identifier. But names are not always unique; for example there are 41 cities and towns in the United States named “Springfield.” So it is often wise to assign an arbitrary number as a unique ID.

Let’s create a unique ID variable for our data set. The ID doesn’t need to mean anything, so we can just number them sequentially. It would also be convenient if it the ID variable were in column A.

1.. Select any cell in column A. 2. Select Home then the little drop-down-arrow next toInsert and then Insert Sheet Columns. This inserts an empty column to the left of (what used to be) column A.

We can enter the ID numbers by hand, but there is an easier way using Excel’s series feature:

  1. Enter “ID” in cell A1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter 1 in cell A2.
  3. Select cells A2:A11.
  4. Select Fill > Series.... The Series dialog box will appear.
  5. There are several options for constructing a series. Fortunately, the default is exactly what we want, so select OK.

As you can see, column A now contains a unique identifier that numbers provinces from 1 to 10.

2.2.2 Formulas

Most of the time our new variables will be calcuated from existing variables. To do this, we will use formulas. A formula is just a rule for calculating a value from some other values.

Formulas always start with the equals sign = followed by a mathematical expression that can include any combination of:

  • Specific values, for example =2 or =TRUE
  • References to other cells, for example =D2
  • Standard arithmetic operators, for example =2+2 or =D2/4
  • Functions, for example =SQRT(D2) or =SUM(D2:D10).

We will go through several examples below. A simple formula

We will start with a very simple formula.

Returning to our application, everyone who is either employed or unemployed is in what economists call the “labour force.” So let’s add that variable.

  1. Enter “LabourForce” in cell H1 to name the variable.
    • Note that I avoid putting spaces in variable names. This is a habit of mine when working with data, because spaces can cause complications when moving data across systems, e.g. from Excel to R.
  2. Enter “= D2 + E2” in cell H2.

Cell H2 now displays 2,493,300 which is in fact the value in cell D2 plus the value in cell E2. Notice that the formula bar shows =D2+E2 and not 2,493,300 or 2493300. That is because the true contents of the cell are the calculation itself (the formula) and not the results of the calculation (the value).

Because the cell contains the formula and not its result, the value displayed in cell H2 will change if the data changes. Copying, pasting and relative references

We haven’t yet filled in the remaining cells in column H. It would be inconvenient to type a formula into each cell, and would quickly become very time-consuming with a larger data set.

Fortunately, we can copy the formula in cell H2 and paste it to the other cells.

  1. Select cell H2 and copy it.
  2. Select cells H3:H11 and paste.

Now, go to cell H3 and take a look at the formula bar. You’ll notice that while the original cell H2 contains =D2+E2, cell H3 actually contains =D3+E3.

Excel is smart and normally treats cell addresses in formulas as relative references rather than absolute references when copying and pasting cells. This is usually exactly what we want it to do.

Sometimes we will want Excel to treat a cell reference as absolute and not relative. Fortunately there is a way to do this - we will do that soon.

2.2.3 Cell formatting

A cell’s contents are distinct from its display format, which is how it appears on the screen. We can change the display format of a cell or group of cells without changing its contents.

Let’s add a column for the labour force participation rate. To remind you, this is the proportion or percentage of the population (column C) that is in the labour force (column H).

  1. Enter “LFPRate” in cell I1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter “=H2/C2” in cell I2 to calculate the variable.

Let’s also add a column for the unemployment rate. To remind you, this is the proportion or percentage of the labour force (column H) that is unemployed (column E).

  1. Enter "UnempRate in cell J1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter “=E2/H2” in cell J2 to calculate the variable.

We can copy and paste the rest of the cells, but let’s use Fill instead.

  1. Select cells I2:J11
  2. Select Home > Fill > Down

Now, we have these rates proportions (a number between 0 and 1) rather percentages (a number between 0 and 100). But we might want to display percentages. We could change the LPFRate formula to "=100*H2/C2" but another alternative is to just change the cells’ display format:

  1. Select cells I2:J11.
  2. Select Home > Number Format (it is a little drop down box that currently displays “General”), and then select “Percentage”.

You will see that the cell now displays the rates in percentage, to two decimal places. I think it would be more readable if we round to just one decimal place. To do that, select Home > Decrease Decimal.

An important thing to understand here: all we have done is change how the numbers are displayed. If we do any calculations with these cells, the calculation will use the original proportional value without rounding.

Advanced options

In addition to changing the way that numbers display, you can change many other aspects of display formatting including:

  • font,
  • bold/italics/underline
  • text color
  • background color
  • cell borders
  • alignment (left/right/center as well as top/bottom/middle)

2.2.4 Built-in functions

Excel has about 500 built-in functions that we can use in formulas.

To use a function, you simply include its name and its arguments as part of the formula. For example, the SQRT() function takes a single numeric argument and returns the square root of the argument. So if you enter “=SQRT(2)” in a cell you will see 1.414, the square root of 2.

It also has extensive tools for

  • finding the function you need for a particular calculation task
  • figuring out what arguments to use in the function.

We will now go through an example. A simple function

Suppose we want to add a new variable for the (natural) log of population.

  1. Enter “LogPop” in cell K1 to give the variable a name.
  2. Select cell K2.
  3. If we knew the name of the function for taking the natural log, we could just type in our formula. But suppose we don’t know the name of the function, or even whether there is such a function.
    1. Click on the insert function button insert function button to the left of the formula bar.
    2. The “Insert Function” dialog box will appear. It will have a very long list of functions. You will want to narrow this list down, and you have several options for doing so:
      • Search: Enter "logarithm in the Search for a function text box.
      • Browse: Select “Math & Trig” from the Or select a category drop-down box.
    3. Once you have narrowed the list down, it is easy to find the function you want (LN). Select LN from the Select a function list box, and then select OK.You will now see the Function Arguments dialog box for the LN function.
  4. As you can see, the LN function takes one argument (the number you want the log of). You want to take the log of cell C2, so enter the text “C2” here or click on cell C2.
    • the dialog box will display the value in cell C2 (3588700) as well as the calculated value for the log of cell C2 (15.0933058).
  5. Select OK.

You will see that cell K2 now contains “=LN(C2)” which displays as 15.0933. Note that if you already knew the function and arguments you needed, you could have just typed “=LN(C2)” into cell K2 instead.

  1. Copy/paste or fill the rest of the cells.

As you can see, the contents of cell K2 have been filled in to the other cells, which is what we wanted. Again, the cell references have all been updated.

2.2.5 Cell references Cell ranges

Some functions like SUM() and AVERAGE() operate on a range of cells rather than a single cell or list of cells. A range is just a rectangular set of cells, and is described by its upper-left and lower-right cells, separated by a colon (“:”). For example:

  • Range A2:A5 consists of cells A2, A3, A4 and A5.
  • Range A2:C2 consists of cells A2, B2, and C2.
  • Range A2:B3 consists of cells A2, B2, A3, and C3.

Suppose we want to create a new variable that reports the total population across all observations in the data. The function to do that is SUM().

  1. Enter “TotPop” in cell L1 to give the variable a name,
  2. Enter “=SUM(C2:C11)” in cell L2.

Cell L2 should display 31,275,600 which is indeed the sum of cells C2 to C11. Absolute references

Let’s complete our TotPop variable by copy/pasting or filling cell L2 to the remaining cells in column L. You will notice something strange: the other cells don’t show the same number as cell L2.
Why is this?

Remember that Excel normally interprets cell references as relative to the current cell when performing copy-and-paste or fill operations. This is normally what we want Excel to do. But in this case it results in cell L3 (for example) containing the sum of cells C3:C12 rather than the sum of C2:C11 like we want.

To fix this, we need to tell Excel that we want certain references to be treated as absolute rather than relative. To do that, we add the character “$” before each such reference.

  1. Go back to cell L2.
  2. Change “=SUM(C2:C11)” to “=SUM(C$2:C$11)”.
    • Notice that the value in this cell does not change.
  3. Copy/paste or fill cell L2 into cells L3:L11.
    • Notice that all cells in this column display the same contents (=SUM(C$2:C$11)) and value (31,275,600)

This is what we want. Combining absolute and relative references

Sometimes we will want to combine absolute and relative references in the same formula.

Suppose we want to create a new variable that is the province’s population rank. That is, the province with the highest population has a rank of 1, second highest has a rank of 2, etc. The function to do that is RANK.EQ(), which takes two arguments: the value to rank, and the list of values to use for the ranking. We want the first argument (the province’s population) to vary across provinces, but we want the list of values (the populations of all of the provinces) to stay the same.

  1. Enter “PopRank” in cell M1 to give the variable a name.
  2. Select cell M2.
  3. Use the Insert Function tool to access the arguments for RANK.EQ(). Enter the appropriate arguments and press “OK”:
    • Number is the number we wish to rank: enter C2 for Alberta’s population.
    • Ref is the set of values we want to rank within: enter the range C$2:C$11 for the list of all provinces’ populations.
    • Order is an optional argument: leave it blank.
  4. Copy/paste or fill cell M2 into cells M3:M11.

As you can see, Excel displays the correct ranks. We can check this by sorting on Population and seeing if PopRank is also sorted.

Advanced options

The RANK.EQ() function has several relatives with similar syntax:

  • The RANK() and RANK.AVG() functions also return the rank, but use slightly different rules for handling ties.
  • The PERCENTRANK(), PERCENTRANK.EXC() and PERCENTRANK.INC() functions return ranks in percentiles.

2.3 Using non-numeric data

Most of the data we work with is numerical. However, there are other types of information we regularly work with:

  • Text
  • True/false conditions
  • Dates and times

Excel has tools for entering, storing and processing these data types.

2.3.1 Text data

The Province column contains text data, also called “character” data or “string” data.

Text values can be entered directly in a cell, can be used in a formula, and can be the result of a formula.

For example, the CONCAT() function allows you to join (concatenate) two or more strings. Let’s use that function to create a sentence that describes our data as if it we were writing a written report.

  1. Enter “Description” in cell N1 to name the variable
  2. Enter =CONCAT(C2," people live in ",B2) in cell N2.
    • The cell should display 3588700 people live in Alberta
  3. Copy/paste/fill in cells N3:N11.

As you can see, CONCAT() is useful for converting data into human-readable statements. It is also useful for creating ID variables.

Advanced options

There are many useful functions to manipulate text strings in Excel:

  • LEN() calculates the length (number of characters) of a string. For example:
    • =LEN("Hello world!") returns the value of 12.
  • MID() allows you to extract part of a string. For example
    • =MID("Hello world!",2,3) returns a value of “ell”.
  • UPPER(), LOWER() and PROPER() allow you to change the case of a string. For example:
    • =UPPER("Hello world!") returns “HELLO WORLD!”,
    • =LOWER("Hello world!") returns “hello world!”, and
    • =PROPER("Hello world!") returns “Hello World!”.
  • FIND() allows you to find a particular substring within a larger string, and
    • =FIND("world!","Hello world!") returns 7
  • REPLACE() allows you to replace part of a string.
    • =REPLACE("Hello world!",7,5,"mom") returns “Hello mom!”

2.3.2 Logical data

In addition to text and numbers, cells can also contain logical values (TRUE or FALSE). Logical data is also called “Boolean” data.

Logical values can be entered directly in a cell, can be used in a formula, and can be the result of a formula.

To see how the logical values work, let’s create a variable that indicates whether a province has a labour force participation rate below 64%.

  1. Enter “LowLFP” in cell O1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter "=(I2 < 0.64) in cell O2.
    • Notice that (I2 < 0.64) is a statement that is either true or false, not a numeric expression.
    • Logical statements can use other comparison operators, including =, <, >, and <=.
  3. Copy/paste or fill cell O2 into cells O3:O11.

As you can see, the cells display TRUE in the three provinces with LFP rates below 64%, and FALSE in the other seven.

Logical values are particularly powerful in combination with the IF() function. This function takes three arguments: a statement, a value to return if the statement is true, and a value to return if the statement is false.

Let’s use the IF() function to create an indicator or dummy variable. An indicator variable is the numerical version of a logical variable: it takes on the value 1 if a particular statement is true, and 0 if the statement is false.

  1. Enter “LowLFPInd” in cell P1 to name the variable.
  2. Enter “=IF(I2 < 0.64,1,0)” in cell P2.
  3. Copy/paste or fill cell P2 into cells P3:P11.

As you can see, the cells display 1 in the three provinces with LFP rates below 64%, and 0 in the other seven. When cleaning data we will typically use indicator variables rather than logical variables.

Advanced options

  • NOT() returns TRUE if its argument is FALSE and FALSE if its argument is TRUE.
  • AND() returns TRUE if all of its arguments are TRUE.
  • OR() returns TRUE if any of its arguments are TRUE.
  • SWITCH() and IFS() are extensions of IF() that take multiple conditions.

2.3.3 Dates and times

In additions to numbers, text, and logical values, Excel can handle dates and times. Dates and times are a surprisingly complex subject that can create all sorts of problems on a computer:

  • There are many ways of writing the same date:
    • November 1, 2020
    • 2020 November 1
    • 14 Heshvan 5781 (Hebrew calendar)
    • 11/1/2020
    • 11/1/20
    • 11-1-2020
    • 2020/11/1
    • etc.
  • Customs vary across cultures, in some places 11/1 is November 1 and in others it is January 11.
  • We want to be able to sort and rank, so that January 10, 2020 comes before December 10, 2020.
  • We want to be able to add and subtract, so that January 4, 2021 comes 5 days after December 30, 2020.
  • We want to handle time zones, daylight savings time, leap years, and even leap seconds.
  • We want to do this in a way that is correct, but hides all of these complexities in normal usage.

Excel handles these issues as follows:

  1. Dates are stored as the number of days elapsed since some base date. In Excel the base date is January 1, 1900, which means that
    • January 1, 1900 is day 1.
    • January 2, 1900 is day 2.
    • November 1, 2020 is day 44136.
  2. Display formatting determines how the date is displayed.
  3. When you enter something that looks like a date, Excel:
    • guesses the date format for what you have entered
    • converts what you have entered to the internal form
    • changes the display format to what Excel thinks it should be.

Excel will treat times as partial days. For example, Excel will store 11/1/2020 12:00:00 PM as day number 44136.5 and 11/1/2020 1:00:00 PM as day number 44136.5416666667.

To see how this all works, let’s go back to the MonthYr variable in column G.

  1. Select cell G2. Notice that (at least on my computer):
    • The cell displays Nov-20
    • The formula bar displays 11/1/2020.
  2. To see how Excel sees this date, change the cell’s number format from “Custom” (on your computer it might be “Date”) to “General”
    • Now the cell displays 44136.

Now while a date of 44136 is quite clear to Excel, we want to display dates in a more human-readable way. I don’t like the Nov-20 display format, since it isn’t obvious whether that means November 2020 or November 20. So let’s change the formatting:

  1. Select cells G2:G11.
  2. Select Number Format > Short Date.
    • You can see even more options if you select “More number formats”

We can also do calculations with dates, and there are various functions using dates. For example, let’s calculate how long ago November 2020 was:

  1. Enter “Today” in cell Q1 to name the variable
  2. Enter =TODAY() in cell Q2 to put in today’s date.
    • This will display today’s date.
    • Tomorrow, the cell will display tomorrow’s date.
  3. Enter “HowLongAgo” in cell R1.
  4. Enter =Q2-G2 in cell R2.
    • This will display the number of days that have passed between November 1, 2020 and today.
  5. If you have not already done so, save your data file.

Most of the time, Excel’s handling of dates works seamlessly and is very clever. But sometimes Excel guesses wrong, and this can create all sorts of problems.

Excel is used widely in the field of human genetics. In that field, each gene has a standard abbreviation like “TCEA1” or “CTCF” assigned by a scientific body called the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC). Unfortunately, 27 genes have abbreviations that Excel misinterprets as dates, for example “Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 2,” also known as “MARCH2”. If you enter the text “MARCH2” in an Excel cell, Excel will automatically convert it to the date of March 2 in the current year. A 2016 research paper found that roughly 20% of published research articles in the field used data that was affected by this problem.

There is no way of “fixing” Excel to keep this from happening since any change to its behavior would “break” Excel in some other application. So the HGNC changed the names of 27 genes in 2020: MARCH2 is now called MARCHF2.

2.4 Data management

When analyzing data it is important for our results to be clear and reproducible. What that means is that an interested reader should be able to figure out exactly how you got your results, and should be able to generate those results themselves.

  1. Document all original data sources.
    • I have done this here in the Sources worksheet.
    • Another alternative is to put this information in a text file.
  2. Keep an unmodified copy of all original data.
    • I have done this here in the Raw Data worksheet.
    • An alternative is to create a Raw Data folder, and put the original data file there.
  3. Avoid directly editing existing data if you can. Add new data instead.
    • In Excel this means it is better to add columns rather then edit existing columns.
  4. Give all files and variables brief but informative names.
    • I usually avoid spaces or special characters in variable or file names as they can cause problems when moving data across operating systems or software packages.

Note that the “interested reader” might be you, since you may not remember where you found the data or what you have done with it.