Y2K didn’t solve all the date problems

It’s been eight years since the critical days for Y2K. Many people still think that Y2K was the biggest scam since Bre-X, with IT hardware and service companies making a fortune over it.

But those of us in the IT field know that because of a lot a hard work by many people, planes didn’t fall out of the sky, ATM’s continued to work and life went on pretty much as usual on Jan. 1, 2000. And we sure fixed the computer date problem…didn’t we?

I’m not too sure we did. In front of me is a receipt from Rona Home and Garden dated 1/05/08. This could be for January 5, 2008, May 1, 2008 or even two dates in 2001. I’m excluding the two formats where year is in the middle, as these could be considered goofy. But they wouldn’t be the only goofy thing in Canadian date formatting.

Rona is one of many organizations whose printed dates are unclear. Looking at over 50 documents from about 40 different organizations, only about 25 per cent had printed dates that were completely unambiguous. The saddest part was that close to 40 per cent of them used only two digits for the year. After all the work done for Y2K to make sure that years are internally stored with four digits, this is a distressing situation. Didn’t we learn that showing years by two digits outside the computer is equally as confusing as internal storage using two digits?

Lack of clarity isn’t the only date issue. So are date formats. Some firms, including Canadian Tire, Cineplex Odeon and RBC Royal Bank use different formats on different documents. The Calgary Co-op uses four different formats. The Calgary Airport saved a few cents on toner cost by not including the year on its parking receipt. The documents I looked at were retail receipts, financial statements and a few government issued documents. For retail purchases, a correct date may be needed for warranty and return reasons. You bought something about six months ago where the warranty is for six months. It would be most beneficial to know from your receipt which month it was actually bought in.

The employee who travels a lot and gets behind on his travel expense claim looks at a receipt and asks,“Was this for a meal in Ottawa in March or in April?”

The dishonest business owner or accountant who realizes the date ambiguity thinks, “Should I write these expenses off in a different year than when they were incurred, so that I can get some tax benefits?”

Have accountants and auditors been aggressively pointing out the potential problems here? There are four different ways we can write dates, excluding the ‘goofy’ ones that have the year in the middle — Y/M/D; Y/D/M; D/M/Y and M/D/Y. In the documents I looked at, the most common form was M/D/Y, but this was for only 50 per cent of the documents. About 22 per cent and 28 per cent used Y/M/D and D/M/Y respectively.

There were none using the Y/D/M format.

While we are working out what we should do in Canada, we need to acknowledge that clarity is nearer to God than international standardization. To make a major improvement quickly, two rules regarding dates could be universally followed:

• All years in four digits

• All months in letters not numbers. Three characters is sufficient; i.e. JAN, FEB, etc.

If we follow these rules, the order doesn’t matter. Of course, being Canada, the second rule raises the French/English issue. But we’ve coped with similar problems in so many ways, I’m sure we can cope with this.

Y2K only solved half the computer date problem. We still need to solve the other part — the external presentation of dates. We have a mess which leads to confusion and potentially more serious problems.

The ISO standard doesn’t have sufficient acceptance that we should feel bound to follow it. We should start by ensuring clarity by using four digits for years and three letters for months.

Foyer is a retired IT professionals with 40 years in the industry. ron-foyer@shaw.ca.

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