It was reassuring in an odd way, to have more than 30 responses to my February 8 article (‘Y2K didn’t solve all the date problems’). Some went both ComputerWorld Canada and some came directly to me.

Many are frustrated by the date mess. Some have gone for date clarity where they can in their own work worlds. Sadly, no one wrote to say that they are getting their IT department to standardize on clear unambiguous dates on all their documents.

This is a uniquely Canadian problem. On Wikipedia, there is a document showing what standards are used in 94 countries. Fifteen countries are recorded as usually using the ISO 8601 standard while 91 countries are reported as primarily using a single date format.

Two jurisdictions, Sweden and Macau, use two different formats. And believe it or not, one country is recognized for using four date formats.

Yes, it is Canada, who ‘leads’ the world in date format tolerance — or, more accurately, in date format confusion. I’m sure you’ll agree that we have a real made in Canada mess.

Many of the readers’ comments support the use of the ISO 8601 standard. Both Vaughn Seward and Brent Horst point out that no one writes dates in the format, YDM — e.g. 2008 01 March. The sample of 50 documents that I used to write the first article had no documents in this format. So if we use YMD and we use four digits for the year, then we should have no ambiguity.

We will avoid some of the language issues around using a three digit alphabetic field for the month. If this were adopted, Canadians should quickly realize that 2008/03/01 is March 1, 2008. I prefer to have ‘/’ as a separator. 2008/03/01 is much easier to read that 20080301.

I recommended using YYYYMMMDD (e.g. 2008MAR01) as a date format.

Julien Chaisson pointed out that we have reached national acceptance for two characters for our provinces, so we should be able to settle on two characters for months. He proposed a set. So March 1 2008 would be 2008MR01.

I can’t see why 2008MR01 and 2008/03/01 shouldn’t both be used. Clarity is a greater virtue than uniformity. There is nothing wrong with ‘good’ diversity. As they say, all the animals in a flock are sheep.

Standardizing on a clear date format is not as sexy as new networking technology for an IT department or a software maker, but it would sure help the frustrated accounts payable clerks, the employees filing expense accounts and so many others who waste time trying work out dates on documents.

And it’s not just financial documents where the confusion occurs. I’m looking at some pills I got from Wal-Mart’s Pharmacy. They are dated as 09/08/2007 — 9th of August or the 8th of September?

I hope IT departments will start to make this a project with significant importance for them. It’s an embarrassment that eight years after Y2K, we’re still fumbling around with dates.

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