I’ve got yet another good story to tell that I heard at the SmartLabs Exchange, the number of useful stories I heard are almost endless, but this one has to do with using e-mail for sending results and it got me thinking about the way we use e-mail, in general. One issue I’m not going to discuss in this post is that of the security of the information – just the timeliness.

E-mailing General Information
On our laboratory informatics projects, it’s handy to be able to send e-mail. We can include as many people as are necessary when we want to send out a new schedule, to let people know a decision has been made or any other bits of information. Some of the information is critical and time-sensitive. E-mail can get information places faster than overnight post in a country or cross-country mail, USUALLY.

That’s the problem — the “usually” bit. We come to depend on e-mail to get information places and quickly. But what we don’t realize is that there are always new things happening in the e-mail filter world that can potentially hold back our information. Thus, just over the past year, I’ve had some of my e-mail to customers and others get caught in some filter and not received. Likewise, others have sent me documents and information that did not come through.

Thus, we’re reduced to calling each other to ask, “Did you get my critical e-mail?” When we’re just sending things that we could have called about, it sometimes does seem ridiculous to do this, but when we’re sending documents and results, we just have to give-in and make the call to double-check.

And now, let me tell you a specific story that I heard at the SmartLabs Exchange, but hiding the information so you won’t know who it is.  🙂

The Story
A company had a lab outside their central lab performing metals analysis for them. I don’t remember if it was their own lab in another location or a contract lab, but the problem probably would have been the same, in this case. The results were desperately needed. It was a “rush” situation. But after several days of waiting for these results, the central lab called the other lab to complain that they had expected to get these results “yesterday” and wanted to know what was holding them up! It turns out the other lab had turned it around in the promised period and sent the results days ago, when they were supposed to be sent. They double-checked their e-mail and the attachments of the files were there – everything seemed fine. I think they even tried resending them, but to no avail.

Upon investigation, it turns out the central lab’s e-mail spam filters had prevented the results file e-mails from being delivered. It was not because of the file extension and the two labs had successfully sent and received results this way, previously. Here’s how the spam filter decided to keep those files from being delivered: there are lists of words that are suspect. Each word has a number value assigned to it. When a word shows up multiple times its value is multiplied by the number of times it shows up and everything is added. There is a total value that an e-mail cannot go over. So, if one highly-rated word shows up in an e-mail, it can prevent the e-mail from being delivered, or if a low-rated word shows-up many times, the total would be enough to prevent the e-mail from being delivered.

Remember that I mentioned that this was a metals analysis? Well, some of the metals are used to make weapons and, as such, each gets low ratings. Because there were many, many samples involved one of the low-rated words for a metal showed up so many times that the total value of the e-mail was past the limit. Thus, the e-mail was not delivered.

The Lesson
E-mail filters continue to get more sophisticated every day. They continue to change, and one of my customers who had not had to whitelist me in their e-mail suddenly had to do so when they could mysteriously no longer get my e-mail (and we think the filters had somehow changed). Some people are using web-site and other tools that allow us to communicate and exchange information within the tool so that this is not an issues but we then end up signing-into yet one more place than we already have. Overall, we must remain aware that this issue exists and continue to change and outwit us on our ongoing projects. That wasn’t its intention but that’s the outcome and we have to know that’s the way it is.

Gloria Metrick                     
GeoMetrick Enterprises

One Thought to “E-mailing Information and Results”

  1. Nancy Ridenhour

    Timely. In the last few days the WSJ ran an article on the problems with “reply all”. Seems a number of people have been hitting that when they should not have.

    A recent webinar discussed filters that are having to stop sensitive info from leaving companies due to security and privacy issues.

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