The Differences Between Data, Information and Knowledge
We frequently hear the words Data, Information and Knowledge used as if they are the same thing.
You hear people talking about the Internet as a “vast network of human knowledge” or that they’ll “e-mail through the data.”
By defining what we mean by data, information and knowledge – and how they interact with one another – it should be much easier.
Has Anyone Seen My CDs?
A few years ago, the UK Government Tax office lost some CDs containing 25 million people’s records, when they were posted unsecurely. The fear was that there was enough information contained on them to allow criminals to set up bank accounts, get loans, and do their Christmas shopping… all under someone else’s name.
In the fallout, the main argument in the press was about security, and inevitably there were many that were using it to attack Government ministers. Anyone who’s ever worked in a bureaucracy will know that this kind of thing goes on more often that we would like to think, as people cut corners. No procedure or official process is water-tight. It’s just this time, they didn’t get away with it.
The media used the terms “data” and “information” interchangeably.
For example, one of the frequent mistakes was that they lost “data.” However, you can’t physically lose data. You can’t physically pick up data, move it about, etc.
Let me explain, but – before we go any further - I should point out that I’m using the Infogineering defintions of the three words (data, information, knowledge) here. They’ve been so muddled up over the past few years that the various definitions don’t match up. So, let me explain how Infogineering views them all.
Firstly, let’s look at Knowledge. Knowledge is what we know. Think of this as the map of the World we build inside our brains. Like a physical map, it helps us know where things are – but it contains more than that. It also contains our beliefs and expectations. “If I do this, I will probably get that.” Crucially, the brain links all these things together into a giant network of ideas, memories, predictions, beliefs, etc.
It is from this “map” that we base our decisions, not the real world itself. Our brains constantly update this map from the signals coming through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin.
You can’t currently store knowledge in anything other than a brain, because a brain connects it all together. Everything is inter-connected in the brain. Computers are not artificial brains. They don’t understand what they are processing, and can’t make independent decisions based upon what you tell them.
There are two sources that the brain uses to build this knowledge - information and data.
Data is/are the facts of the World. For example, take yourself. You may be 5ft tall, have brown hair and blue eyes. All of this is “data”. You have brown hair whether this is written down somewhere or not.
In many ways, data can be thought of as a description of the World. We can perceive this data with our senses, and then the brain can process this.
Human beings have used data as long as we’ve existed to form knowledge of the world.
Until we started using information, all we could use was data directly. If you wanted to know how tall I was, you would have to come and look at me. Our knowledge was limited by our direct experiences.
Information allows us to expand our knowledge beyond the range of our senses. We can capture data in information, then move it about so that other people can access it at different times.
Here is a simple analogy for you.
If I take a picture of you, the photograph is information. But what you look like is data.
I can move the photo of you around, send it to other people via e-mail etc. However, I’m not actually moving you around – or what you look like. I’m simply allowing other people who can’t directly see you from where they are to know what you look like. If I lose or destroy the photo, this doesn’t change how you look.
So, in the case of the lost tax records, the CDs were information. The information was lost, but the data wasn’t. Mrs Jones still lives at 14 Whitewater road, and she was still born on 15th August 1971.
The Infogineering Model (below) explains how these interact…
Why does it matter that people mix them up?
When people confuse data with information, they can make critical mistakes. Data is always correct (I can’t be 29 years old and 62 years old at the same time) but information can be wrong (there could be two files on me, one saying I was born in 1981, and one saying I was born in 1948).
Information captures data at a single point. The data changes over time. The mistake people make is thinking that the information they are looking at is always an accurate reflection of the data.
By understanding the differences between these, you can better understand how to make better decisions based on the accurate facts.
Data: Facts, a description of the World
Information: Captured Data and Knowledge
Knowledge: Our personal map/model of the World