15 February 2016

Again and again I hear someone explain about how they manage data and notice that somewhere spreadsheets play an important role. Very often, that’s Microsoft Excel. From big companies to small organisations like ours. And so it’s surprising that it’s such a hassle to reliably export data for use in other tools.

What would be the most logical format to export to? Comma separated values (CSV), with UTF-8 encoding. As field-separator preferably a comma (what’s in a name), but a semicolon is also acceptable. And as row-separator a CRLF (so that Windows users can open it in a text editor).

But, unfortunately, this option is not available in Excel, and hasn’t been for all those years. There is a meagre selection of relevant export options, with either CSV or Text (which means tab-separated), and for encodings Windows, ASCII, and Unicode. Only the last supports all characters. It appears to be UTF16-LE with a BOM (phew, at least that).

To be precise: export the sheet as UTF-16 Unicode Text (*.txt) in Excel.

Reading in Ruby

Importing this file in Ruby, e.g. to populate or update a database, happens like this:

require 'csv'

CSV.foreach("sheet.txt", col_sep: "\t", row_sep: "\r\n", encoding: "bom|utf-16le:utf-8") do |row|
  # do something
  puts row.inspect

Hopefully we now have found a way to handle data from Excel spreadsheets properly.