How to differentiate between data and information

Tom Allen
clock • 2 min read
A number without context has no meaning: it could be the height of a mountain or the storage on a disk drive
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A number without context has no meaning: it could be the height of a mountain or the storage on a disk drive

Both are important, but one is useless without the other

The modern world generates and uses a truly astounding amount of data, but it puts less of a focus on context - to its own detriment.

Such was the theory put forward by Simon Ratcliffe, principal consultant at Ensono, in his session at Computing's IT Leaders Forum last year, focused on data strategy and literacy.

"One of the things we can be absolutely certain about in the modern world is that there is a lot of data, and we are all being driven towards using data to make our decisions," said Ratcliffe. But, he added, he's "not actually a huge fan of data." At the end of the day, "it's just a bunch of numbers." Trying to use those numbers to make decisions is quite difficult; what is important is information, or data with context.

This is not just a semantic argument, he added: it's about how we approach data and information, and how we create wisdom inside our organisations.

We talk about data all the time in the modern world: data scientists, chief data officers, data lakes and data warehouses. But sometimes, "we kind of miss the point," and must go back to basics to revise what we're actually looking for.

For example, it is too easy to end up with numbers without context. What is the number? What does it mean? But give it context, and the data becomes information: it tells us something. For example, the number 5,000 means nothing on its own. Add 'feet' and you suddenly know the number refers to distance. Then you can apply other information, or correlate it with other data inside your organisation, to turn information into knowledge.

"The last piece of the puzzle [(wisdom)] is key, and sadly I think it's the part that we quite often fail to unlock in our data strategies," Ratcliffe added.

"If we can derive wisdom from our data, it adds value to our organisation. Until that point it's simply fact without interpretation."

On-demand videos of the entire day - including bespoke research from Computing about data literacy and a case study about the use of data in a healthcare setting - can be found on the event website now.

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