Understanding data versus information

San Rock ArtIs data different from information?

This is a great question to ask if you want to start a flame war amongst the data management (or should that be information management) community.

My post Data vs Information ran for months in various data management forums without resolution.

Recently, there have been a number of posts looking at the difference between the two terms.

In Practical Magic: Part 1, John O’ Gorman looks at this issue.

Data is technically enhanced information

He suggests that data and information are not the same. Using a definition derived from Dr Barry Devlin’s book, Business unIntelligence, John proposes that “Data is technically enhanced Information which means that information comes before data”.

This definition creates a foundation for Enterprise Information Management (EIM) as it creates separation between the logical and the physical representation of data/information.  The definition proposes that information has a natural architecture, while data has been adapted/translated to fit into available technical stores, such as a database. By implication, data is somehow less natural and may loose meaning in translation.

San rock art, for example, is thought to be a technical representation (data) of a shamanistic vision (information) that may have guided the San in their hunts, or had a religious significance.

Organsations that can separate the two and minimise the loss will have a better representation of reality and, therefore, better quality data.

Data is Information in raw or unorganized form

The other common definition implies that data is simply information in raw or unorganised form. Add context, and you have information.

According to the business dictionary Information is defined as “Data that is (1) accurate and timely, (2) specific and organized for a purpose, (3) presented within a context that gives it meaning and relevance, and (4) can lead to an increase in understanding and decrease in uncertainty.”

By this definition, data comes before information.

By this defintion, poor quality data leads to poor quality information.

Disciplines such as Data Governance and Metadata Management add context to data – turning it into information.

Data and information are both different and the same

Data vs InformationWhether we prefer the first or second definition they have one thing in common: Data and information are defined in reference to each other.

By the first definition we cannot have data without information, by the second we cannot have information without data.

This circular reference shows that information and data, while different, are also the same.

If knowledge is understanding the difference between data and information, wisdom is understanding that in many contexts the differences don’t matter. [Tweet this]


Poor quality data leads to poor quality information.

Data governance turns data into information.

Data management is not inferior to information management.

And the Chief Data Officer has a different role to the Chief Information Officer.

In a business context the terms are frequently used interchangeably, and rightly so.

Which term gets more attention from your business users?

Rock art image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twyfelfontein


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