Costs of supporting dual measures

Ronnie Cohen provides us with an example from his work of the additional costs that businesses face as a result of having to provide for dual measures. Imagine how much better off we might be if all such costs in the UK economy and throughout the world could be avoided.

I work as a software developer for a small business that provides energy software solutions to gas and electricity companies. In that business, I noticed a number of features have been developed to support dual measurements. Over 50 extra lines of code have been written to support the use of Fahrenheit, in addition to Celsius, including conversions between Fahrenheit and Celsius in both directions. Over 50 extra lines of code have been written to include non-metric units and conversions, mostly between metric and non-metric units and almost 100 lines for supported conversions between metric and imperial units for imported data. A setting has been provided for users to express whether data is in Celsius or Fahrenheit in a couple of different places. Comments around the code are included in these figures but not the various locations in the code where extra parameters are included to support the use of dual units.

All this does not include discussions, technical and design specification documents, end-user documentation for these features and testing to support dual measurements. All this would be unnecessary if we just used one system and abandoned other units. As they say, time is money and all the time spent on these software features costs money. I have just described the costs incurred by one small business for the continued use of dual measurements. Imagine how much extra work has gone into supporting dual measurements in software systems that involve measurements across the whole of the software industry.

This phenomenon can also be found in common software products such as OpenOffice. I have found that they support both metric and imperial units in their software. I opened the Options window in OpenOffice and found that users can configure their software to use metric, USC/Imperial and other software-specific units (i.e. points and picas). Here are the images that show these settings:

(Click on the images above to see them in full size.)

This does not include the length-dependent settings where users can set the number of centimetres or inches, based on their preferred measurement units. There are several of those settings too. No doubt, all the functionality that use these different measurement units also had to be implemented, not just coded, but planned, designed, documented and tested. And these are just some of the hidden costs of maintaining dual measures.

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8 Responses to Costs of supporting dual measures

  1. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Many years ago, I developed some software, initially for the structural steel industry in Canada, then the UK, that automated the costing and scheduling (programming) of virtually any building you liked (beyond single family dwellings), using a relatively simple input process setting out the type of building (offices, hospital, etc), how many storeys (above and below ground), what type of construction (steel, concrete), type of design of the structural frame, type of cladding and so on. It was of course heavily measurement focussed, especially as the output consisted of nearly 100 (maximum) construction processes, from initial site clearance to final handover, with each process involving a quantity and a unit rate. Each of those processes was then automatically programmed into a bar chart with all dependencies logged. This output could be exported into Microsoft Project. The costing database ran to over 500 different unit rates.

    After producing a metric version for Canada, followed by a further metric version for the UK, I was then asked by the American steel trade association to produce an imperial/USC for the US market. It cost me months of time to convert everything, and I actually underestimated just how long it would take. Hundreds of extra lines of code had to be inserted to account for all the weird conversion factors and calculations inherent in using non-metric measures (converting, for example, a cubic measurement consisting of linear feet and linear inches into cubic feet then into cubic yards). At the end of all this, I found that I made a bit of a loss, in terms of the amount of what would otherwise have been billable time.

    If the US trade association had been able to use the metric version, it would have taken far less time - and cost far less money. I would even have made a profit!

  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    And now the government can introduce a new one pound coin but cannot manage to metricate road signs. How very sad!

  3. Daniel Jackson says:

    @John Frewen-Lord

    I would have either turned down their request or charged them an astronomical rate that they would definitely not want me to do it. Of course you could have done a sloppy job and made it error prone.

    As long as others are willing to accommodate USC, there will never be a reason for the US to metricate. Making it costly for them either in material use or errors would either force them to metricate or force them out of business. Either way the use of USC would dwindle.

  4. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The new Ordnance Survey 3-D digital map has made an obvious mess of trying to display both feet and metre scales at once. The illustation in today's (8 April 2017) Times (page 19) shows that 100 metres is about 30 feet, while the second illustration in the Daily Mail website
    ( shows that 50 metres is about one and a half time as big as 10 feet.

  5. John Steele says:

    In the 2nd photo, the road in the lower left shows the metric scale is about right and the foot scale off by around 10X. I think we can all be pleased that they screwed up the feet, not the meters.

    However, any oblique view like that has a perspective problem where scale isn't very meaningful across the view.

  6. BrianAC says:

    To be fair to OS, they don't use imperial, on that basis they would probably have no idea.
    We should be praising them for not knowing, I could have looked at that all day and it would have meant nothing to me (to be honest, it still don't), I don't know, don't want to know and don't much care.
    Good for OS, just leave the conversion bar in the bin.

  7. BrianAC says:

    Credit where credit is due.
    Our local Tesco store is now displaying TV sizes in both cm (first) and inches. Both so small I need to put my reading glasses on to see them. Forty years late, but it has happened.
    Further to a post of mine recently, Tesco have also changed the labels on their loose vegetables. All are now consistently (instead of sometime yes, sometimes not) dual priced in both kg and lb, but the kg is prominently on top and highlighted, and the imperial is about half the height and below. Although I find the dual objectionable there is now very little chance of confusion.

  8. Ezra Steinberg says:

    It turns out the the cost of not having a single source of international measurement is even worse in Burma (Myanmar) than it is in the UK:

    This is a reposting of an article that first appeared late February of 2014 (see end of article).

    The article does make excellent points about how multiple categories of issues and multiple stakeholders must be coordinated and committed to effectively and efficiently convert to metric. This is not being done yet in Burma (apparently) nor is it being done in the UK to finally complete metrication (re: road signs and the elimination of Fahrenheit and dual units in the media).

    I hope someone can find updated information about how metrication is proceeding in Burma and if the government there is finally committed to actually implement the changeover throughout the country. Everyone will certainly benefit once they have done so!

    I also found it interesting that Germany has been helping Burma in some ways to convert. Too bad the UK did not see fit to assist their former colony!


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