Data are individual facts, statistics, or items of information, often numeric. In a more technical sense, data are a set of values of qualitative or quantitative variables about one or more persons or objects, while a datum (singular of data) is a single value of a single variable.
Although the terms “data” and “information” are often used interchangeably, this term has distinct meanings. In some popular publications, data are sometimes said to be transformed into information when they are viewed in context or in post-analysis. However, in academic treatments of the subject data are simply units of information. Data are used in scientific research, businesses management (e.g., sales data, revenue, profits, stock price), finance, governance (e.g., crime rates, unemployment rates, literacy rates), and in virtually every other form of human organizational activity (e.g., censuses of the number of homeless people by non-profit organizations).
Data are measured, collected, reported, and analyzed, and used to create data visualizations such as graphs, tables or images. Data as a general concept refers to the fact that some existing information or knowledge is represented or coded in some form suitable for better usage or processing. Raw data (“unprocessed data”) is a collection of numbers or characters before it has been “cleaned” and corrected by researchers. Raw data needs to be corrected to remove outliers or obvious instrument or data entry errors (e.g., a thermometer reading from an outdoor Arctic location recording a tropical temperature). Data processing commonly occurs by stages, and the “processed data” from one stage may be considered the “raw data” of the next stage. Field data is raw data that is collected in an uncontrolled “in situ” environment. Experimental data is data that is generated within the context of a scientific investigation by observation and recording.
Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom are closely related concepts, but each has its role concerning the other, and each term has its meaning. According to a common view, data are collected and analyzed; data only becomes information suitable for making decisions once it has been analyzed in some fashion. One can say that the extent to which a set of data is informative to someone depends on the extent to which it is unexpected by that person. The amount of information contained in a data stream may be characterized by its Shannon entropy.
Knowledge is the understanding based on extensive experience dealing with information on a subject. For example, the height of Mount Everest is generally considered data. The height can be measured precisely with an altimeter and entered into a database. This data may be included in a book along with other data on Mount Everest to describe the mountain in a manner useful for those who wish to decide on the best method to climb it. An understanding based on experience climbing mountains that could advise persons on the way to reach Mount Everest’s peak may be seen as “knowledge”. The practical climbing of Mount Everest’s peak based on this knowledge may be seen as “wisdom”. In other words, wisdom refers to the practical application of a person’s knowledge in those circumstances where good may result. Thus wisdom complements and completes the series “data”, “information” and “knowledge” of increasingly abstract concepts.
Data are often assumed to be the least abstract concept, information the next least, and knowledge the most abstract. In this view, data becomes information by interpretation; e.g., the height of Mount Everest is generally considered “data”, a book on Mount Everest geological characteristics may be considered “information”, and a climber’s guidebook containing practical information on the best way to reach Mount Everest’s peak may be considered “knowledge”. “Information” bears a diversity of meanings that ranges from everyday usage to technical use. This view, however, has also been argued to reverse how data emerges from information, and information from knowledge. Generally speaking, the concept of information is closely related to notions of constraint, communication, control, data, form, instruction, knowledge, meaning, mental stimulus, pattern, perception, and representation. Beynon-Davies uses the concept of a sign to differentiate between data and information; data are a series of symbols, while information occurs when the symbols are used to refer to something.
Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy.
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